Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In Uncharted Waters

What I see as extremes that must necessarily end badly, others see as mere extensions of recently successful policies and trends.


A long-time reader recently chastised me for using too many maybe's in my forecasts. The criticism is valid, as "on the other hand" slips all too easily from qualifying a position to rinsing it of meaning.

That said, given that we're in uncharted waters, maybe's become prudent and certainty becomes extremely dangerous. I have long held that the financial policy extremes that are now considered normal are unprecedented in the modern era: extremes in debt, leverage, risk, complexity and willful obfuscation of these extremes.

Consider the extent to which sky-high asset valuations and present-day "prosperity" depend on extremes of leverage: autos purchased with no money down, homes purchased with 3.5% down payments and FHA loans, stocks bought on margin, stock buybacks funded by loans, student loans issued with zero collateral, and so on--an inverted pyramid of "prosperity" resting precariously on a tiny base of actual collateral.

Since we have no guide to the future other than the past, we extrapolate past trends. Human nature hasn't changed over the short time-frames of civilizations (i.e. the past few thousand years), so in terms of human drives, emotions and responses, the past is an excellent guide to the range of human responses to crisis, euphoria, greed, fear, etc.

But extending trends is a shifting foundation for forecasts, as trends end and reverse, generally without telegraphing the end of an era. Few in 1639 China foresaw the collapse of the status quo Ming Dynasty a mere five years hence.

With the hindsight of history, we can discern the cracks in the Ming Dynasty before its collapse, but once we shift to our own era, things become less certain.

In my view, we're drifting in uncharted seas.

I have covered the dangers of certainty before: Certainty, Complex Systems, and Unintended Consequences (February 14, 2014)

What I see as extremes that must necessarily end badly, others see as mere extensions of recently successful policies and trends. Let's review a few of the many extremes that we now accept as ordinary and harmless.

Consider how much new debt is now required to lift GDP ("growth") off the flat line:


The slightest pause in the expansion of credit nearly collapsed the entire global economy:

Extraordinary central state and bank policies have boosted the wealth of those closest to the Federal Reserve's money spigot and left everyone else poorer:


It's not just real income that's declined--so has household wealth.


Incentives to borrow money to obtain a college degree are declining while student loan debt hits astounding extremes:


Feel free to extend this line of Federally funded student debt: where does it end?


The Federal Reserve has pushed astonishingly extreme policies for six years. Now that the Fed owns significant chunks of the Treasury bond and mortgage bond markets, it's being forced to limit these easing programs:


All the Fed money-printing and bond buying has sent money velocity in the real economy into a tailspin: this is good, right? No, actually it's a calamity. Money has slipped into a coma.


Extend the trendlines in these charts, and then ask yourself: where do they end? What will they trigger as they push ever deeper into uncharted waters?



Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy(Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle editionAre you like me? Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.


And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.

You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.

Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers(25 minutes, YouTube) 



NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Charles B. ($10), for your much-appreciated generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Artists' Road to Serfdom: The Commoditization of Creative Content

This is the net result of commoditization: there's no premium for commoditized capital, labor, goods, services or content.


As I noted in Our New Robot Overlords & The Third Type of Capital, profits flow to whatever inputs are scarce. Unfortunately for musicians, writers, filmmakers and others producing creative content, creative content is no longer scarce: it's been commoditized and is now available in unlimited quantities for $10/month.

The model is simple: unlimited content for a few bucks per month.This is the model of music services such as Spotify and Pandora (which offer advert-supported services for free) and iTunes Radio, Amazon Prime for borrowing Kindle ebooks and various film/video distribution services.

The model effectively commoditizes all creative content. Commoditization makes all inputs interchangeable. Global labor has been commoditized because it no longer matters which workers assemble the goods, global capital has been commoditized because it no longer matters where the capital comes from, and globally produced goods, services and resources have been commoditized because it no longer matters where they come from or who produces them.

Services that offer unlimited streaming/borrowing commoditize all content: the content is interchangeable to the buyer, and the creator of the content earns next to nothing when the content is streamed.

A recent article in the S.F. Chronicle (ITunes is in need of a tune-up to keep up with streaming) explains:

Digital music sales recently fell for the first time ever, with the number of digital songs purchased plummeting 13 percent to 594 million in the first half of 2014, compared with the same period a year ago, according to research firm Nielsen, which has tracked music sales since 1991. Meanwhile, the amount of music streamed online rose 50 percent, the firm said.

While streaming sites have helped big online music spenders save money, they have also cut into the money that musical artists make per song.

ITunes sells songs for 69 cents to $1.29 each. For a song that costs $1.29, Apple takes 30 percent of the sale and the rest goes to the record label and artist, Stewart said. If the artist is on a record label, they would get a royalty of about 20 cents for that track, she said.

That might not seem like a lot, but the money could be even less in streaming music for free with ads. In general, a song must be streamed 75 to 80 times in order for a music label to make the same amount of money as from a single online song purchase, according to MIDiA Research.

The unlimited-streaming/borrowing model is great for consumers and the companies collecting the fees every month, but it's a rocky road to serfdom for content creators. 80 downloads are needed for the musicians to collect a lousy 20 cents for their creative efforts? Let's be generous and note that self-produced/distributed artists could collect as much as 50 cents of an iTunes purchase, and presumably the same from 80 downloads.

So it only takes 8 million downloads to earn a median middle-class income of $50,000 a year. Musicians (those signed to labels) who receive 20 cents from 80 downloads would need 20 million downloads annually to earn $50,000--roughly the median household income in the U.S.

How many musicians get 20 million downloads?

The distribution of creative-content rewards tends to follow a power law, i.e. the Pareto Distribution, where the "vital few" (the very apex of the pyramid) reap most of the rewards.

So a handful of artists, writers and independent filmmakers collect most of the shrinking pool of money paid for creative content, and the vast majority earn chump-change.

As a writer with a number of Kindle ebooks available for purchase or borrowing by Amazon Prime members, I do a little better than the musicians whose songs have been commoditized; I earn about 25% of an ebook sale when someone borrows one of my Kindle ebooks.

Nonetheless, this is a 75% haircut in earnings from the everything's been commoditized model of unlimited access to content. And the sum I earn from borrowed ebooks changes, depending on the funds Amazon places in the pool and how many Prime customers borrowed ebooks.

Numerous articles promote work-arounds for the desertification of earnings wrought by commoditization of content: sell more T-shirts at your gigs, work the loyalty of your fans to encourage them to buy your stuff even though they could stream it for free, etc.

But the reality is the pool of money being distributed to content creators is shrinking. Work-arounds may work for the handful of people who master 24/7 marketing, but this is just another iteration of the power law: a tiny handful of content creators reap most of the profits from the full-court-press of marketing.

My friend Richard Metzger of the excellent Dangerous Minds website and I discussed this trend of artistic serfdom years ago, and the only thing that's changed is the velocity of the decline in creators' incomes.

This is the net result of commoditization: there's no premium for commoditized capital, labor, goods, services or content. Those with the big idea of controlling the distribution of content are collecting an enormous premium for figuring out how to scale up this model, and the vast majority of content creators are left with the nickels and dimes that fall through the commoditizing blades of the distribution machine.

But hey, you might get famous on YouTube, and that might open a trickle of advert revenue.



Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy(Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle editionAre you like me? Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.


And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.

You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.

Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers(25 minutes, YouTube) 





NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.


Thank you, Larry M. ($50), for your splendidly generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Our New Robot Overlords & The Third Type of Capital

Fortune will instead favor a third group: those who can innovate and create new products, services, and business models.


A recent issue of Foreign Affairs sported a catchy cover teaser: Our New Robot Overlords. This brings to mind various sci-fi scenarios, but the actual article title is academic to the point of obscurity: Labor, Capital and Ideas in the Power Law Economy.

Rather than rehash the usual failed Keynesian Cargo Cult economics, the authors describe three powerful ideas that resonate very strongly with my own work:

1. Digital technologies (networked software, automation and robotics) are radically reducing the need for human labor and the leverage of traditional capital (land, fixed assets and cash) globally.

2. Premiums flow to whatever inputs are scarce. Labor and traditional capital are no longer scarce; what's scarce is innovative, practical ideas. Ideas (for new models, products, services, processes, etc.) are a third form of capital that will accrue most of the rewards.

3. This distribution of premiums/rewards follows a power law, i.e. the Pareto Distribution where the "vital few" with the 3rd type of capital (good ideas) reap most of the rewards.

This is of course a generalized simplification, and there are plenty of parts of the economy that still depend on labor and conventional capital. But the point here is that thanks to globalization and overcapacity, most inputs are no longer scarce, and so the premium (high wages and/or profit margins) that the owners of labor and capital can charge is trending down in every tradable sector.

This mirrors the analysis of socio-economist Immanuel Wallerstein, which I have covered in some depth:

One systemic source of rising inequality is crony-capitalism/crony socialism: the vast array of insider deals, collusion, winners being picked by the central state, too big to fail banks bailed out with taxpayer money, etc. People are increasingly aware the Status Quo is rigged, and the playing field is tilted to favor the few inside the crony-capitalist castle (what I call the New Nobility in a Neofeudal economy).

The authors of this essay are pointing out that the leverage of digital technologies rewards the most talented to an extreme degree. In an economy where the premium on labor and ordinary capital is falling (i.e. the yield on ordinary capital is near-zero, and wages are declining in real terms), those who can leverage ideas digitally can reap the premium reserved for what's scarce.

"This means that the real winners of the future will not be the providers of cheap labor or the owners of ordinary capital, both of whom will be increasingly squeezed by automation. Fortune will instead favor a third group: those who can innovate and create new products, services, and business models.

The distribution of income for this creative class typically takes the form of a power law, with a small number of winners capturing most of the rewards and a long tail consisting of the rest of the participants. So in the future, ideas will be the real scarce inputs in the world -- scarcer than both labor and capital -- and the few who provide good ideas will reap huge rewards."

Should the digital revolution continue to be as powerful in the future as it has been in recent years, the structure of the modern economy and the role of work itself may need to be rethought."

For individuals, this means being able to solve problems and create value in ways that can't be automated: this is the core message of my book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. The way to leverage one's ideas is to network, network, network and acquire multiple skills that can be applied in innovative, practical ways to a wide spectrum of problems.

As a society, we will have to deal with the reality that the nature of work is fundamentally changing, and wages are no longer an adequate means of distributing the surplus of an economy.

In my view, the answer is to broaden the scope of work beyond the state (i.e. working for the government) or private sector companies which must make a profit or perish, to what I call the community economy. More on that in my next book, which is on this very topic.


This essay was drawn from Musings Report 27. The weekly Musings Reports are sent exclusively to subscribers ($5/month) and major contributors ($50+ per year).



Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy(Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle editionAre you like me? Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.


And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.
You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.

Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers(25 minutes, YouTube) 



NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Pierre D. ($50), for your superbly generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Why Nations (and organizations) Fail: Self-Serving Elites

For those who doubt that America is ruled by a narrow elite: three charts.


The book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty neatly summarizes why nations fail in a few lines:

(A nation) is poor precisely because it has been ruled by a narrow elite that has organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people. Political power has been narrowly concentrated, and has been used to create great wealth for those who possess it.

Sound like any countries you know?Perhaps we should flip this question around and ask: how many nations don'tfit this profile?

I submit that this dynamic of failure--the concentrated power and wealth of self-serving elites-- is scale-invariant, meaning that it is equally true of communities, towns, cities, states, nations and empires alike: all fail when they're run for the benefit of a narrow elite.

There is a bitter irony in the ease with which American pundits discern this dynamic in developing-world kleptocracies while ignoring the same dynamic in America. One would imagine it would be easier to see the elites-inevitably-cause-failure in one's home country, but the pundits by and large are members of the Clerisy Upper Caste, well-paid functionaries, apparatchiks, lackeys, factotums, toadies, sycophants and apologists for the very elites that are leading America down the path of systemic failure as the ontological consequence of their self-serving consolidation of wealth and power.

For those who doubt that America is ruled by a narrow elite: I don't have charts for standard-issue third-world kleptocracies, but I doubt the concentration of wealth and political power is much more extreme than in America:

In a simulacrum democracy where the highest bidders control the state, who do you think can readily buy political power?


And the policies of the elites have really spread the prosperity around in the past few years(sarcasm-off):


What's truly interesting about the authors' exhaustive survey of the inevitability of failure in elite-dominated nations is how cities dominated by narrow elites fail, states controlled by narrow elites fail, and indeed, any organization that serves the interests of a few at the expense of the many fails for the same reasons.



Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy(Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle editionAre you like me? Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.


And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.
You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.

Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers(25 minutes, YouTube) 



NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Jimmy B. ($20), for your most-excellently generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why the State Has Failed to Reform Our Broken Financial System

Expecting the state to truly reform the nation's engines of financialization is like asking the cocaine addict married to the wealthy dealer to divorce the dealer.


Most observers think they know why the government (i.e. the state) has failed to truly reform the financial system: corrupt politicos on the receiving end of the Too Big to Fail (TBTF) banks and financiers' millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions do the banks' bidding.

While the reduction of democracy to an auction in which the highest bidder controls the state is certainly one systemic reason for this abject failure,there is an even greater, more deeply systemic reason why the state cannot reform the rotten core of financialization.

The state has become dependent on the wages and profits of finance for its own revenues.

Here's an analogy of what's happened in the past few decades of financialization: you meet Mr./Ms. Right (he/she is attractive, makes a lot of money, well-dressed, good social skills, etc.), fall in love and marry.

Unbeknownst to you, Mr./Ms. Right is a cocaine dealer. When you find out the source of the fat paychecks, he/she reassures you it's just business and that he/she never uses the stuff. But if you want to try a taste, go ahead--it won't hurt you.

You think about leaving him/her, but the money is just so good. Life without all that easy money looks bleak and difficult.

Just to see what all the fuss is about, you try the cocaine.

So now you're addicted not just to the easy money but to the cocaine, too. Now it's impossible to leave the dealer.

Substitute finance-dependent profits and wages for cocaine and you now understand the marriage of the state and the engine of financialization: financialization has generated the big profits, the hefty wages that pay most of the state's income taxes and enabled most of the consumption of the past three decades.

Were the state to actually limit financialization--excessive debt, leverage and risk-- it would be cutting the primary source of its own revenues. The wages and profits generated by financialization aren't limited to banks and financial institutions--every industry that depends on leveraged debt and cheap credit is ultimately an arm of financialization.

This includes the entire FIRE economy--finance, insurance and real estate--as well as the auto industry, home furnishings, boating, recreation, tourism--every industry that has been living off credit cards, home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) and other sources of cheap credit.

Cheap credit is the cocaine, and not only is the state addicted to the cocaine of cheap credit that enables its own stupendous borrowing, it's also addicted to the easy money that is generated by our economy's addiction to credit.

Take a look at this chart of financial sector profits. Recall that all corporate profits are about 11% of gross domestic product (GDP). So purely financial profits are about one-third of all corporate profits--an extraordinarily high percentage historically.
But this chart vastly under-represents the true impact of financialization on profits and jobs. How many homes would be sold if all buyers had to put down 20% istead of 3.5% for FHA loans? How many vehicles would be sold if buyers had to put down 20% of the vehicle's cost in cash and qualify for a 3-year loan? How much of the economy's consumption would go away if credit cards had to paid in full every month?

How much federal income tax does a minimum-wage retail worker pay? Zero. How much income tax does a $300,000 a year finance worker pay? A lot. Truly reforming the financial sector to eliminate the cocaine of financialization would gut not just credit-based consumption but state tax revenues.

Expecting the state to truly reform the nation's engines of financialization is like asking the cocaine addict married to the wealthy dealer to divorce the dealer.

This is why socio-economist Immanuel Wallerstein characterizes our finance-dependent version of capitalism as “a particular historical configuration of markets and state structures where private economic gain by almost any means is the paramount goal and measure of success.”



Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy(Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle edition
Are you like me? Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.


And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.

You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.


Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers(25 minutes, YouTube) 




NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.


Thank you, Deveney M.J. ($20), for your wondrously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

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