Saturday, April 19, 2014

What's Cooking at Our House: Ciambella

As cakes go, this is a relatively easy recipe.

Though it is described on some websites as a doughnut, the classic ciambella is a ring-cake, often referred to as an Italian breakfast cake. We made one last week to celebrate the launch of my latest book (cue the shameless pitch) Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

As cakes go, it's a relatively easy recipe; its disguishing features are four eggs and lemon zest. Here is one recipe.

Since we own a lemon tree, the zest was no problem; but we did that one better by adding a bit of home-made lemoncello, an easy-to-make liqueur of lemons and vodka.

I took these photos right after pulling the cake from the oven; pardon my poor presentation.



We used a heavy bundt pan, which gave the cake a nice texture.



Sugar is once again in the public awareness as a health hazard. In the counterculture days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was widely known as "white death," so the negative consequences of consuming large quantities of refined sugar is not exactly a new bit of knowledge.

Like any other refined food, it is best consumed in moderation; this is common-sense. The negative consequences arise from daily over-doses (for example, the infamous 44 gallons of sugary soda the average American consumes annually), as opposed to small servings consumed after a meal of real unprocessed food.

As a culture, we got into trouble by turning foods that were once rare treats into daily treats and by forgetting that the mind and body are one. Recently, per capita soda consumption in the U.S. slipped to 701 8-ounce servings, the lowest since 1987, so the awareness of the benefits from reducing consumption of sugar and zero-value soft drinks is rising.

There is a place for treats. Baking a cake when you complete a multi-month project is a nice thing. Consuming cakes, sodas, fast food, ice cream, etc. a few times a year restores their role as celebratory treats.

"A healthy homecooked family meal and a home garden are revolutionary acts."



Want to give an enduringly practical graduation gift? Then give my new book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy, a mere $9.95 for the Kindle ebook edition and $17.76 for the print edition.



Join me on May 2 for the Sonoma Wine Country Conference: Investment Ideas Hidden In Plain Sight: great speakers, good cause (benefits Autism Society of America):






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 





Thank you, Michael S. ($200), for your astoundingly generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership. Thank you, Marsha F. ($55), for your marvelously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

Read more...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's Time to Retire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a Measure of Prosperity

What if we used wellness (Gross Domestic Happiness) as a metric for prosperity rather than GDP?


Distilling an economy's success in delivering "prosperity" to a single number has outlived its purpose. Zachary Karabell describes the birth of GDP in far less complex times in (Mis)leading Indicators: Why Our Economic Numbers Distort Reality (Foreign Affairs): 
A GDP that is growing in sync with expectations can enhance a country’s reputation and thus its strength and power. A GDP that is contracting or failing to meet expectations, on the other hand, can lead to disaster. Yet a hundred years ago, the concept of GDP did not exist; history unfolded without it. The United States, for example, managed to win its independence, fight a civil war, and conquer a continent without any measure of national income. 
GDP’s origins lie in the 1930s, when economists and policymakers in the United States and the United Kingdom struggled to understand and respond to the Great Depression. 
It is not terribly surprising that economists and policymakers came to favor a statistical technique that helped the United States survive a depression and win a war. But not even the economists who invented this metric imagined that GDP would become so central to every state in the world within a few short decades.
The problem is this radical reductionism at the heart of any single measure is irrevocably flawed: 
Leading indicators were invented to measure the economies of the industrial nation-states of the mid-twentieth century. In their time, they did so brilliantly. The twenty-first century, however, is proving more challenging to measure. Industrial nation-states have given way to developed economies rich in services and to emerging industrial economies exporting goods made by multinational companies. The statistics of the 20th century were not designed for such a reality, and despite the assiduous efforts of statisticians, they cannot keep up. 
These shifts have created a temptation to find new formulas, better indicators, and new statistics. But the belief that a few simple numbers or basic averages can capture today’s multifaceted national and global economic systems is a myth that should be abandoned. Rather than seeking new simple numbers to replace old simple numbers, economists need to tap into the power of the information age to figure out which questions need to be answered and to embrace new ways of answering them.
The limitations of GDP are so severe that the number is at best misleading. Karabell identifies three intrinsic flaws in any single-number scheme to measure GDP:


1. GDP does not include vast swaths of economic output and value

2. GDP is useless in measuring real-world trade

3. GDP counts digging a hole and filling it but not conservation of energy or resources. 
If a steel mill produces pollution that then requires a cleanup, both the initial output (the steel) and the cost of addressing its byproduct (the cleanup) add to GDP. So, too, would the cost of health care for any workers or residents injured or sickened by the pollution. Conversely, if a company replaces its conventional light bulbs with long-lasting LED bulbs and, as a result, spends less on lighting and electricity, the efficiency gains would detract from GDP. Yet few would argue that the pollution example represents a positive development or that the lighting example constitutes a negative one.
The simplistic assignment of "import" and "export" completely misses the reality of modern manufacture and trade, where parts come from multiple nations. As Karabell explains: 
If trade numbers more accurately accounted for how products are made, it is possible that the United States would not have any trade deficit at all with China. The problem, in short, is that trade figures are currently calculated based on the assumption that each product has a single country of origin and that the declared value of that product goes to that country. Thus, every time an iPhone or an iPad rolls off the factory floors of Foxconn (Apple’s main contractor in China) and travels to the port of Long Beach, California, it is counted as an import from China. 
A more reasonable standard, of course, would recognize that iPhones and iPads do not have a single country of origin. More than a dozen companies from at least five countries supply parts for them. Infineon Technologies, in Germany, makes the wireless chip; Toshiba, in Japan, manufactures the touchscreen; and Broadcom, in the United States, makes the Bluetooth chips that let the devices connect to wireless headsets or keyboards. 
Taking these facts into account would leave China, the supposed country of origin, with a paltry piece of the pie. Analysts estimate that as little as $10 of the value of every iPhone or iPad actually ends up in the Chinese economy, in the form of income paid directly to Foxconn or other contractors.
I have addressed this issue for years, for example: Trade War with China: Who Benefits? (April 11, 2007)

No single number, regardless of the inputs, can possibly reflect the real economy. Karabell concludes: 
How entrepreneurs run effective businesses; how individuals buy homes, pay for college, or retire -- none of those decisions should be based on the leading indicators of the last century. Old attachments to those indicators, and to the myth that there is something called “the economy” that affects all people equally, poses a major obstacle to progress.
Karabell also discusses what I call the propaganda value of GDP: 
These measurements were not invented to serve as absolute markers of national success or failure or to indicate whether some governments were visionary and others destructive. But the transformation of these numbers from statistics into markers of national success happened so quickly over the course of a few decades that no one quite noticed what was happening.
I tend to think political authorities knew exactly what was happening: they realized that their own credibility could be boosted by a rigged GDP number. Thus we have the central government of China issuing blatantly bogus claims of 7+% annual GDP, as anything less will severely erode their claim of managerial brilliance.


In our own propaganda-dependent state, GDP is almost always positive, much like corporate earnings always beat expectations by a penny.

But we should be paying attention to an even deeper critique of GDP: that prosperity no longer depends of the "growth" of consumption, financialization, etc. but on the Degrowth of narcissistic consumerism and more efficient use of resources and capital.

What if we used Bhutan's guiding national policy of Gross Domestic Happiness, as a metric for prosperity? 
A second-generation GNH concept, treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric, was proposed in 2006 by Med Jones, the President of International Institute of Management. The metric measures socioeconomic development by tracking seven development areas including the nation's mental and emotional health. GNH value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures: 
1. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution
2. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic
3. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses
4. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients
5. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits
6. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates
7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.
Here in the U.S., we give lip-service to all these values, but ask yourself: where do we spend most of our time? Serving our masters in the State/crony-cartel economy, creating GDP.

Yes, we all still need to earn a livelihood, but imagine a society constructed around generating Gross Domestic Happiness instead of GDP. The power structure would collapse because none of these activities generate enough profits or taxes to keep the Machine operational.

It is a sad statement that we often only awaken to real value and meaning when we've run out of time to change the way we "invest" our time.


Want to give an enduringly practical graduation gift? Then give my new book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy, a mere $9.95 for the Kindle ebook edition and $17.76 for the print edition. 


Join me on May 2 for the Sonoma Wine Country Conference: Investment Ideas Hidden In Plain Sight: great speakers, good cause (benefits Autism Society of America):



 



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 





Thank you,James K. ($50), for your splendidly generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.Thank you, Gail G. ($50), for your wondrously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

Read more...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It's Time to Ditch the Consumer Price Index (CPI)

So why does the government maintain such a transparently inaccurate and misleading metric? For three reasons.

That the official rate of inflation doesn't reflect reality is obvious to anyone paying college tuition and healthcare out of pocket. The debate over the accuracy of the official consumer price index (CPI) and personal consumption expenditures (PCE--the so-called core rate of inflation) has raged for years, with no resolution in sight.

The CPI calculates inflation based on the prices of a basket of goods and services that are adjusted by hedonics, i.e. improvements that are not reflected in the price of the goods. Housing costs are largely calculated on equivalent rent, i.e. what homeowners reckon they would pay if they were renting their house.

The CPI attempts to measure the relative weight of each component:



Many argue that these weightings skew the CPI lower, as do hedonic adjustments. The motivation for this skew is transparent: since the government increases Social Security benefits and Federal employees' pay annually to keep up with inflation (the cost of living allowance or COLA), a low rate of inflation keeps these increases modest.

Over time, an artificially low CPI/COLA lowers government expenditures (and deficits, provided tax revenues rise at rates above official inflation).

Those claiming the weighting is accurate face a blizzard of legitimate questions. For example, if healthcare is 18% of the U.S. GDP, i.e. 18 cents of every dollar goes to healthcare, then how can a mere 7% wedge of the CPI devoted to healthcare be remotely accurate?


In my analysis, the debate over inflation is intrinsically flawed. What really matters is not the overall rate of inflation, which can be endlessly debated, but the purchasing power of earned income, i.e. wages and the exposure to real-world costs.

In other words, those households with zero exposure to college tuition and the full costs of daycare, medical care and healthcare insurance may well experience low inflation, while the household paying the full costs of daycare, college tuition and healthcare insurance will experience soaring inflation.

Here's one example of how CPI fails to capture real-world inflation/loss of purchasing power. Let's say an employee works for a company or agency that pays his/her healthcare insurance. The monthly cost has risen from $1,000/month to $1,500/month. The employee's wage has remained stagnant but the total compensation costs paid by the employer have gone up by $500/month.

Now the employer shifts that $500/month to the employee as their share of the healthcare insurance cost. Since the average full-time worker earns around $40,000 a year, and pays around 18% in taxes, their take-home pay is around $33,000 annually.

The employee's co-pay of $6,000 a year ($500/month) represents 18% of their take-home wage. This is an 18% reduction in earnings, or the equivalent of 18% inflation (i.e. a reduction in purchasing power).

This shifting of the skyrocketing burden of healthcare costs acts the same as 20% inflation, yet it doesn't even register in the current CPI.

The geography of inflation doesn't register, either. Soaring rents in Brooklyn, NY and the San Francisco Bay Area have a profound effect on those exposed to these rapidly rising costs, yet these impacts are massaged to zero by national CPI calculations.

So once again we have a bifurcated society: those protected by the state from rising costs and those exposed to real-world reductions in purchasing power.Households that receive government subsidies and direct payments have little exposure to real-world healthcare costs, since they are covered by Medicaid, and modest exposure to housing if they receive Section 8 benefits (Section 8 recipients pay 30% of their income for rent, regardless of the market price of the rental). Retirees on Medicare also have limited exposure to the real-world costs of their care paid by the government.

If we analyze inflation by these two metrics, we find the middle class is increasingly exposed to skyrocketing real-world prices. Pundits in the top 5% have the luxury of pontificating on the accuracy of the CPI while those protected by government subsidies and coverage have the luxury of wondering what all the fuss is about. Only those 100% exposed to the real costs experience the full fury of actual inflation.

So why does the government maintain such a transparently inaccurate and misleading metric? For three reasons: 1) it is useful propaganda; 2) it suppresses the state's cost-of-living increases and 3) it lowers the government's cost of borrowing. The benefits of reducing COLA adjustments are self-evident, as is the benefit of borrowing money at low rates of interest, but the propaganda benefits are more subtle.

The key to enabling the endless printing of money that enriches the banks and the top .1% is low inflation. Asset bubbles can be inflated, ballooning the wealth of the owners of the assets, as long as inflation is near-zero.

Indeed, the Federal Reserve claims it must print money to counter low inflation.
Meanwhile, in the real economy, those exposed to the real costs of college tuition, healthcare, childcare, etc. are seeing their purchasing power evaporate like a puddle of water in Death Valley. The Fed needs low inflation to justify its continuing enrichment of the financial elite, and the Federal government needs low inflation to keep its COLAs and borrowing costs low.

There are two ways to mask real-world reductions of purchasing power: 1) skew the CPI by distorting the component percentages, hedonics and how costs are measured, and 2) protect enough of the populace from real-world increases so they no longer care. Seniors, who famously vote in droves, have no idea what their Medicare benefits actually cost. As a result, they have no experience of healthcare inflation /reduction of purchasing power.

This works in all sorts of industries. As I have often mentioned here, the F-35 Lightning fighter aircraft costs in excess of $200 million each, roughly four times the cost of the F-18F it replaces. This extraordinary inflation is not experienced directly by the taxpayer who is paying for the boondoggle, as the Federal government borrows trillions of dollars to pay for such boondoggles, effectively passing the inflated costs on to future generations.

These costs are hidden by the low cost of borrowing trillions to pay for boondoggles. If real-world inflation is (say) 5%, then interest rates would typically adjust to a few points above that rate, to compensate capital for the erosion of purchasing power. If the Treasury had to pay 7% to borrow money, the interest cost would soon cripple Federal spending. People would be forced to focus on how all those trillions of dollars are being spent, and to whose benefit.

But with borrowing costs so low, nobody cares.

The solution? One, abolish the Fed and let the market discover interest rates, and two, abandon the simplistic notion that one number of inflation has any meaning in a complex economy with numerous subsets of exposure to market costs and the loss or gain of purchasing power.

Will we muster the will to look past failed models and metrics? Sadly, the answer is no. Why?

As I noted yesterday in What's the Difference Between Fascism, Communism and Crony-Capitalism? Nothinga system set up to enrich political and financial elites is incapable of reform. the only way the CPI will ever be replaced is when the Status Quo collapses in a heap of lies and insolvency. Until then, propaganda and gaming the system to protect vested interests will rule.



Want to give an enduringly practical graduation gift? Then give my new book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy, a mere $9.95 for the Kindle ebook edition and $17.76 for the print edition.


Join me on May 2 for the Sonoma Wine Country Conference: Investment Ideas Hidden In Plain Sight: great speakers, good cause (benefits Autism Society of America):







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 

Thank you, Yoni F. ($55), for your awesomely generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership. Thank you, Christopher B. ($50), for your gloriously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

Read more...

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