Guest Post – A Conservative’s Take on The Pack


Every now and then we come across an article or blog post that’s directly relevant to what we’re trying to say on Epsilon Theory, but is too big and thoughtful to be carved up for a Mailbag note or Zeitgeist post. Steve Soukup has been writing for The Political Forum for many years now (@thepolforum), and I always enjoy reading his weekly emails (soukup@thepoliticalforum.com). This note hit home for Rusty and me (in different ways!), and Steve was kind enough to let us publish it in its entirety. – Ben

Make / Protect / Teach is a Big Tent.


The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.

“Ten Conservative Principles,” Russell Kirk, Adapted from The Politics of Prudence, 1993.

POLITICS, COMMUNITY, AND REBIRTH  As you may (or may not) recall, we ended last week’s Politics, Et Cetera on a seemingly pessimistic note.  “Foreign observers of American politics often wonder at the pervasiveness and divisiveness of the abortion issue in this country,” we wrote.  “They are right to do so.  It didn’t need to be this way.  And now that it is, there’s no political way to rectify it.”

The emphasis on the word “political” was in the original and was added purposefully.  This is a largely inarguable assertion.  There is no political solution to the abortion issue and there never will be.  It is beyond politics.  And so, for that matter, are a great many of the most serious issues facing the nation and indeed our civilization.  This may sound strange for “political” analysts to say, but it’s the God’s honest truth.  There is a definite and incontrovertible limit to the effectiveness of “politics” as we know it.

Longtime readers will undoubtedly know that this is an idea around which we’ve tap-danced for years.  Now is the time to make it explicit.  For decades, we have insisted – categorically, in print and in speeches – that Washington is not the place where the big decisions about the fate of this nation are made.  Washington, we’ve said, is merely the place where the score is kept.

Unfortunately, we’re not entirely sure that this is the case any longer.  The ruling class has been trying, for at least the last fifty years to change that, to reverse the balance of power in our federal republic.  And almost without interruption, it has been winning, slowly but surely usurping the rights and prerogatives of the people.  The Ninth and the Tenth Amendments are considered by the ruling class to be relics, quaint reminders of days gone by that serve no practical purpose and are embraced only by cranks and radicals.

The people have done their best to resist.  As we have noted in these pages over the last several weeks, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump were manifestations of the country class’s resistance to the ruling class’s perfidy.  Both promised “hope” and “change,” albeit of differing varieties.  But neither delivered on those promises.  And while our knowledge of the specific reasons for their failures may be fragmentary, it is nevertheless clear that the larger problem is that this is NOT, strictly speaking, a fight that can be won through political means.

You could, we suppose, call this a “come to Gramsci” moment on our part.  (We’ll call it something else, but more on that in a minute).  It is the recognition that the century-long effort on the part of statists to infiltrate and command the institutions of the transmission of culture has been so thorough and so remorseless that it is simply impossible to fight the good fight any longer, by politics alone.  Gramsci was right, of course, and victory in the “War of Position” – i.e. the war within society to control the culture – is a necessary precondition to victory in the longer, more eternal struggle.  The statists – Left, Right, and otherwise – fought that war, at Gramsci’s insistence, and now control the culture.  And as a result, they control the state and are able to impose their will upon the people, almost without the people even noticing.  “Free” healthcare, you say?  Sign me up!

For a long time, we – and countless other “anti-statists” – believed that the response to this victory in the War of Position by the statists should be met in kind.  In order to win back the country from its now-ensconced ruling-class, the country class would, we believed, have to reverse engineer the statists’ strategy and wage its own war to take BACK the institutions and thereby take back the culture.  Just as they took over education, entertainment, and the media, we would have to do the same, taking back what they stole and using these resources to reconstruct a culture rooted in eternal moral principles and virtues, and dedicated to liberty, free markets, and the proposition that all men are created equal.

There are, unfortunately, problems with this approach.  The first and the most obvious is that it takes time.  While the Leftists/statists could afford to be patient, those seeking to restore a declining culture don’t have that luxury.  It’s declining, after all, and before long, it will be gone entirely.  Even operating under the most optimistic assumptions, one must conclude that the effort to retake the institutions will be measured in decades, not years.  And by then, the neo-Jacobin statists will have done everything they can to ensure that the country class is officially a vassal class, more or less unable to function without the beneficence of its ruling-class masters.

A second and perhaps more significant problem is the fact that some of the institutions are probably not fit to be “retaken,” if for no other reason than they were never “taken” in the first place.  They were never part of the established order to begin with.  Here, we are referring specifically to the vast majority of the institutions of higher education in this country.  Whereas Harvard was founded to train Unitarian and Congregational clergy, Yale was founded to teach theology and religious languages, Dartmouth was founded to teach Christianity to the Native Americans, Princeton was founded to serve as a seminary for Presbyterian ministers, and so on, most American colleges and universities were never intended to transmit eternal truths and ancient knowledge.  Indeed, they were intended to do precisely the opposite.

With the exceptions noted above, America’s universities were nearly all founded under the explicit guise that they should be dedicated not to learning, re-discovering, or teaching the old, but to creating and constructing the new.  In a 2016 essay praising the American university system, published in The Atlantic, Jonathan Cole, the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University at Columbia, put it this way:

Most members of the educated public probably think of America’s greatest universities in terms of undergraduate and professional education—in terms of teaching and the transmission of knowledge rather than the creation of new knowledge. This point of view is completely understandable. They are concerned about the education of their children and grandchildren or relate to their own educational experience.

But what has made American research universities the greatest in the world has not been the quality of their undergraduate education or their ability to transmit knowledge, as important as that is. Instead, it’s been their ability to fulfill one of the other central missions of great universities: the production of new knowledge through discoveries that change our lives and the world.

[T]he United States created the foundation on which great research universities could be built. Those core values included meritocracy; organized skepticism (the willingness to entertain the most radical of ideas, but subject the claims to truth and fact to the most rigorous scrutiny); the creation of new knowledge; the belief that discoveries should be available to everyone and that those that make discoveries should not profit from them; the peer-review system that relies on experts to judge the quality of proposed research that’s seeking funding; and academic freedom and free inquiry, without which no great university can be established.

In short, then, the American university has ALWAYS been progressive, indeed, was specifically designed to be progressive and to incorporate progressive values.  And while this is all well and good, when applied to the physical sciences, when it is applied to the social sciences and the rest of the humanities, it is and always has been disastrous.  This is very much the same dichotomy that existed in the Enlightenment itself, in the contrast between, Newton, for example, and Rousseau.  There is no way to take “back” such institutions, given that their very foundation is fundamentally flawed.

None of this will come as news to conservatives, which is why they spent the last sixty years or so creating their own research institutions.  We know them as “think tanks” – places like the Heritage Foundation, Cato, and the American Enterprise Institute.  But while there are think tanks devoted to politics, think tanks devoted to culture, think tanks devoted to politics and culture, thinks tanks that are conservative, think tanks that are libertarian, think tanks that are dedicated exclusively to promoting functional free markets, the statists still, nevertheless, continue to control the culture.

This is not to say that these think tanks are not having an impact.  They are, undoubtedly.  But it’s not enough of an impact to move the needle at all.  They are discovering – or demonstrating, more accurately – the third and biggest problem with the idea that a Gramscian war can be waged to “take back” the national cultural institutions.  As it turns out, not only are many of the issues that divide this nation beyond politics, they are actually beyond a national solution of any sort.  And as we think about it, that’s precisely as it should be.

In truth, then, this is not a “come to Gramsci” moment for us so much as it as a (or another) “come to Kirk” moment.  Often ignored among Russel Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles,” is principle Number Eight, which is that “conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.”  Kirk continued:

Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger. Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.

For a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed. A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities. That experiment has been made before; and it has been disastrous. It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously warned of the possibility that tyranny could enter the United States via the establishment of powerful, centralized administration.  He hoped, however, that Americans would be able to resist this centralization of administration because of the strength of their civic organizations, the power and the faith they placed in “community.”  And for a long time, he was right.  The existence of these civic institutions permitted the United States to remain distinct from its Western brethren and thus to enjoy the fruits of liberty and true, genuine, and remarkable community.  But, like all good things, as they say, this too came to an end.

Beginning with the Progressive Era and with the Progressives’ aggressive intervention in the day-today affairs of private business, the all-powerful state emerged like Mike Campbell’s bankruptcy, “gradually, then suddenly.”  The New Deal, World War II, the post-war technocratic consensus, and then, of course, the rise of the cultural Left and its politicization of everything, placed the erstwhile centrally governed but de-centrally administered American people under the thumb of the “immense and tutelary power” of “The State.”

Among the sins of this omnipotent and omnipresent state is the bowdlerization of “community” of all sorts – local, regional, religious, civic, athletic, business, social, etc., etc., ad infinitum.  This was, we’re afraid, always inevitable.  It was always the inexorable ambition of the state.  This is not a Republican or a Democrat thing.  It is not a liberal or conservative thing.  It is simply where the state has always been headed.  Again, Russell Kirk saw it coming before any of the rest of us.  To wit:

All history, and modern history especially, in some sense is the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss.  In the process, the triumph of the modern state has been the most powerful factor.   “The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.”  There is every reason to regard the state in history as, to use a phrase that Gierke applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will, “a process of permanent revolution.”  Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association.  What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance.  Universal military conscription and the “mobile labor force” and the concentration-camp are only the most recent developments of this system.  The “pulverizing and macadamizing tendency of modern history” that Maitland discerned has been brought to pass by “the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political state and the social associations lying intermediate to it and the individual.”  The same process may be traced in the history of Greece and Rome; and what came of this, in the long run, was social ennui and political death.  All those gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and sympathetic association that characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state of modern times, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community.

It is clear, then, that the “the state” as it exists today is both tyrannical in the Tocquevillian sense and largely unchangeable or at least unchangeable in the direction that the anti-statists would desire.  Recapturing the cultural institutions is both time consuming and, in some case, likely impossible.

So what, then, are we to do?

There are, we think, only two options.  The first of these is simply to accept our fate, to concede that the state offers comfort, consolation, and a certain amount of stability.  This is the easy choice, the choice of the sensible egoist.  This is the choice of the young American woman who, two weeks ago, lectured the protesters in Hong Kong about their foolishness for choosing freedom over safety.  It is also the choice to become, as Tocqueville put it, “nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

The second option is to choose a form of communitarianism, that is to say to choose, consciously and deliberately, to reconnect with that which should not be the purview of the state and to share that connection with like-minded individuals.  As Kirk notes above, “the same process may be traced in the history of Greece and Rome.”  And when it took place near the fall of Rome, a communitarian ethic took hold among some of the citizens of the Empire, ensuring that its greatest accomplishments would survive its statist rot and eventual collapse.  Or, as the quintessential communitarian moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

As some of you may know, this section of the conclusion of MacIntyre’s After Virtue was the inspiration for the communitarian-conservative journalist Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.  In the final paragraph of After Virtue, MacIntyre writes that “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the dark ages which are already upon us.”  Dreher took that as a challenge to Christians, a warning that they must rediscover their sense of self and find ways to preserve that in the face of the state’s perpetual encroachment upon the lives of its subjects.  Dreher explains his thoughts as follows:

If America — and the West — is to be saved, it will be saved as St. Benedict and the Church saved the West for Christianity after Rome’s fall: by the slow, patient work of fidelity in action. The most patriotic thing believing Christians can do for America, then, is to cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the American order, and instead focus our efforts on strengthening our communities. It begins by re-learning our story, and regaining a sense of the holy. All the rest will follow, in God’s time.

This does not require us to turn our backs on our neighbors — indeed, I don’t see how any Christian can justify that. It does mean, however, that to the extent that engagement with the broader world compromises the telling of our Story to ourselves, and embodying that story in practices, both familial and communal, we must keep our distance. My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.

Dreher’s thesis sparked a great deal of controversy but also a great deal of conversation.  And while most religious public intellectuals refrained from directly endorsing “The Benedict Option,” First Things hosted a discussion that included Dreher, Michael Hanby, a prominent Catholic intellectual, and George Weigel, perhaps the most prominent of all Catholic intellectuals.  It ended with Weigel writing that “The answer in America is to revitalize a civil society rooted in the moral truths embodied in human nature. Only a civil society so rooted is capable of sustaining pluralist democracy without imploding into chaos or sinking into the dictatorship of relativism.”  This may not be The Benedict Option explicitly, but it most certainly is a nod to communitarianism and to the idea that the pursuit and rebirth of civic life must take place well removed from the old strategies that centered on “retaking” the institutions of the state.

Weigel – who, as we say, is quite possibly the most prominent Catholic intellectual in the country, if not the world – went on to argue that “only the Church, among American civil-society institutions, can lead in that long process of national civic renewal.”  In 2015, when those words were written, we might have agreed.  But today, even we aren’t so sure.  The other day, Pope Francis directed Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn to investigate the diocese of Buffalo, which has been one center of the priest abuse scandal.  Our initial reaction – which should tell you something about the American Church’s present ability to lead the process of civic renewal – was to think of a fox and a henhouse.

And while we wish it were otherwise, in the short-run, it’s fine, we suppose, because religious Christians are not, by any measure, the only people in this country who are fed up with our ruling class, with the all-powerful state they’ve enabled, and with the ensuing BIPARTSAN political shakedown.

We may be wrong about this, but you would be hard-pressed, we’d imagine, to find two people less likely to agree on the centrality of the role of Christianity and the Church in society than the aforementioned Rod Dreher and Ben Hunt, the market commentator who, along with his business partner Rusty Guinn, runs Epsilon Theory.  And yet, just four weeks ago, Ben published a piece in which he laid out his vision for challenging “The Long Now.”  And Ben’s vision is remarkably communitarian in its aims, which means that it is also, fundamentally, similar to Dreher’s Benedict Option.  Though the community he wishes to build is differs significantly from Dreher’s, Hunt nevertheless takes his inspiration from MacIntyre.  Roughly a month ago, Ben put it this way:

Every three or four generations, humanity consumes itself with the fang and claw of fascism and collectivism. Every three or four generations, we eat our own.

This is that time. This is the Long Now.

In politics it takes the form of a widening gyre, where the center cannot hold against the onslaught of polarizing political entrepreneurs who eliminate the political promise of the future, replacing it with the Long Now of constant political fear. In economics it takes the form of a market utility, where those same illiberal political entrepreneurs eliminate the economic risk of the future, replacing it with the Long Now of constant economic stimulus….

My question is not how we prevent or avoid the Long Now. Sorry, but that ship has sailed.

No, my question is how we keep the flame of small-l liberal thought and small-c conservative thought alive through the Long Now, so that it can light the world again when this, too, shall pass….

You will hear that the danger at hand is so great, so existential, that NOTHING MATTERS other than combating that danger, that you must sacrifice your most precious possession – your autonomy of mind – to believe in the necessity of these political actions. You must not only think that it is possible for 2 + 2 = 5 if the political exigency is urgent enough, you must believe that it is necessary for 2 + 2 = 5. Orwell called this “collective solipsism”. I call it political nihilism. Either way, THIS is the politics of the Long Now.

And once you believe that NOTHING MATTERS … poof! you have CHOSEN to become a rhinoceros.

So you vote for Bob Menendez. You vote for Roy Moore. You excuse your party’s lies and your politician’s thuggery and moral corruption as necessary to prevent some greater evil.

Here’s the kicker.

There’s not a damn thing that you or I can do to stop this.

There’s only one thing that you or I can do. Luckily, it’s the most important thing….

My advice? Abandon the party as your vehicle for political participation….

THIS is where we stand our ground. Not on some national political scale where we are either turned into rhinos ourselves or trampled into the mud. But on the personal scale. On the scale of our families and our communities. A scale where we can recognize ourselves once again, not as a means to some grand Statist end, but as members of a clear-eyed and full-hearted Pack.

The way through the Long Now is a social movement, not a political party.

A social movement based on resistance and refusal. A refusal to vote for ridiculous candidates. A refusal to buy ridiculous securities. A refusal to take on ridiculous debts. A refusal to abdicate our identity and autonomy of mind.

And it’s more than refusal. It’s more than just saying “Homey don’t play that”, more than just turning the other cheek. There is also action. But it is action in service to our Pack, not action in self-aggrandizement and the celebration of power itself.

As we say, Rod Dreher’s “community” and Ben Hunt’s “pack” would be rather significantly different from one another.  Nevertheless, they would both share the belief that the American reliance on politics and enabling of the omnipresent state have failed.  They would also share the belief that there are certain collective values that supersede contemporary radical individualism, but that those values should be guarded, taught, and expressed “locally and voluntarily.”

When we left Lehman Brothers – Mark 18 years ago, and Steve 17 years ago – we formed our own community, our own pack. We didn’t set out to do so, but, like MacIntyre’s Romans, we – “not recognising fully what [we] were doing” – rejected the imperium to construct a new form of community.  Our community differs from Rod Dreher’s, just as it differs from Ben Hunt’s, although we consider ourselves adjacent to both, perhaps in between the two.  You, gentle reader, are our community, our pack, our “sympathetic association.”

As many of you know, The Political Forum community has not been well these last couple of years.  One difference between our community and Ben Hunt’s pack is that his is, as he says, “at scale,” while ours is not.  Nevertheless, we fight on, and have plans that we hope will enable us to maintain our community and to maintain the values we think are important.

Chief among these values is the belief that the ancient truths and virtues apply to and benefit man, no matter the setting or conditions of his action or deliberation.  And while countless organizations exist on the Right to foster this same belief and to encourage this same notion in life and politics, we find that it is sorely lacking in the practice of business.  The conflict between “self-interest” and “stakeholder interest” is unnecessary and destructive.  It is also both a component and a product of the crushing of “community” in the general sense.  We can’t fix this, obviously.  But we can guard the remnants that still exist and do our best to re-create a community in which this all makes sense.

And that’s what we intend to do.

Watch this space.


If you’d like to connect with Steve, you can email him at soukup@thepoliticalforum.com, and you can connect with him on Twitter at @thepolforum.


Was That Wrong?


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Mr. Lippman: It’s come to my attention that you and the cleaning woman have engaged in sexual intercourse on the desk in your office. Is that correct?

George Costanza: Who said that?

Mr. Lippman: She did.

[pause]

George Costanza: Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing is frowned upon … you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices, and I tell you, people do that all the time.


“THERE IS DEFINITE HANKY-PANKY GOING ON”: THE FANTASTICALLY PROFITABLE MYSTERY OF THE TRUMP CHAOS TRADES  [Vanity Fair]

Three days earlier, in the last 10 minutes of trading, someone bought 82,000 S&P e-minis when the index was trading at 2969. That was nearly 4 a.m. on September 11 in Beijing, where a few hours later, the Chinese government announced that it would lift tariffs on a range of American-made products. As has been the typical reaction in the U.S. stock markets as the trade war with China chugs on without any perceptible logic, when the news about a potential resolution of it seems positive, stock markets go up, and when the news about the trade war appears negative, they go down.

The news was viewed positively. The S&P index moved swiftly on September 11 to 2996, up nearly 30 points. That same day, President Donald Trump said he would postpone tariffs on some Chinese goods, and the S&P index moved to 3016, or up 47 points since the fortunate person bought the 82,000 e-minis just before the market closed on September 10. Since a one-point movement, up or down, in an e-mini contract is worth $50, a 47-point movement up in a day was worth $2,350 per contract. If you were the lucky one who bought the 82,000 e-mini contracts, well, then you were sitting on a one-day profit of roughly $190 million.


This Vanity Fair feature article is as badly sourced and as poorly vetted and as ridiculously misleading an article about markets as I’ve ever read. It’s an embarrassment to the author and the editors and everyone associated with the piece.

And yet I still think there’s a non-trivial chance the Carl Icahns and Steve Schwarzmans of the world are, in fact, being tipped by the White House.


Do I think Carl and Steve, both of whom talk directly with Trump and Mnuchin all the time, are buying 400,000 e-minis on Friday afternoon?

Of course not.


Do I think Carl and Steve are told exactly what’s happening in the China talks as soon as it happens?

Yes, I do.


Is it illegal for Carl and Steve to make trades based on that information, particularly in the swaps, futures and commodities markets?

No, it is not.


Are S&P 500 e-mini contracts part of that more lightly-regulated swaps, futures and commodities market?

Yes, they are.


To be clear, the restrictions on how and what market-impacting information can be legally shared from government sources has gotten a lot tougher over the past 10 years.

First, under the 2012 Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, it is now illegal for members of Congress (and the Executive and Judiciary!) to trade their personal accounts based on non-public information acquired under their official business, and they are held to the same standards on tipping insider information as the SEC applies to everyone else. There are also beefed up reporting requirements for their personal trades, including in commodity markets, and clear language that government employees and appointees owe a “duty of care” to the US government.

Second, Dodd-Frank contained language that gave the CFTC more leeway in bringing insider trading cases against participants in commodity markets, which includes traders in derivative instruments like the S&P 500 e-mini contract. The CFTC still can’t bring cases based on a traditional insider information basis, because the idea of an inside track on material, non-public corporate information (“Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel!”) makes no sense when you’re talking about commodities. What the CFTC can do, however, is bring an insider trading case based on a “misappropriation” theory of non-public information, which they’ve done in a couple of cases since 2016. Basically, if you “steal” non-public information from your employer or client and use that to your advantage in a CFTC-regulated market, they can now go after you.

But here’s what hasn’t changed:

Reg-FD does not apply to the President of the United States.

If Carl Icahn calls up the CEO of GM and asks her how the UAW talks are going, it is illegal for Mary Barra to tell him anything that she does not also tell everyone else.


If Carl Icahn calls up the President of the United States and asks him how the China talks are going, it is perfectly legal for Donald Trump to tell him anything without obligation to tell anyone else.

You don’t think Trump knows this? You think Trump believes he owes some sort of “duty of care” to anyone beyond his family and circle of fellow oligarchs? You think Trump lies awake at night asking himself “was that wrong?”

LOL.


The Long Now, Pt. 3 – Wink


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The Long Now is personal.

Tick-Tock

The Long Now is political.

Make – Protect – Teach

The Long Now is systemic, both in a micro sense of the body politic riddled through and through with this cancer, and in a macro sense of the tectonic plates of social organization shifting wildly without foundation or tether.

Today’s note is about the micro.

Today’s note is about getting back to the Real.


That’s me on the left, giving Luca a pat on the head. That’s Neb Tnuh on the right, giving you a pat on the head.

If you’re not familiar with Neb, here’s how I introduced him last year:

“Neb has a hard time talking with real people these days. Neb just doesn’t … connect … the way he used to. He doesn’t have much to say. He mumbles a lot. He imagines long and involved conversations with people in his head, but that’s where they stay. In his head.

Sartre famously said that hell is other people. For Neb, hell is other people who want to talk about markets or politics. Neb is just so WEARY of being lectured for the umpteenth time on why Trump is so awful or why Trump is so great, why Bitcoin is going to $100,000 or why Bitcoin is going to zero, why the “fundamentals are sound” or why the fundamentals are sound EXCEPT for this one thing which will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down ANY DAY NOW, why the Fed is the source of all evil in the world or why the NRA is the source of all evil in the world or why the Democrats / Republicans are the source of all evil in the world.

So obviously Neb is a real barrel of laughs at parties, which he shuns today even though he remembers that he used to like parties. The circle of real people that he actively feels comfortable being around has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk until he can count them on his fingers, and even here Neb increasingly has a hard time connecting with these non-rhinoceros friends. He increasingly talks past and through the people who are the most important to him, like his wife and daughters. And that makes Neb saddest of all.

He’s lost friends over the widening gyre, lost over the event horizon of black hole Trumpdom or lost in the blare of doubleplusgood DemSoctalk. He’s lost family, too.

On the flip side of that coin, it’s easier and easier for Neb to talk with complete strangers on social media platforms. It’s all so easy for Neb to lose himself in this ocean of social abstraction and Turing tests, because he’s fluent in the symbolic languages of mathematics, history and pop culture. And so he swims in that ocean, compulsively even, until he’s forgotten whether or not there was ever a shore.

That’s the defining characteristic of life in the Long Now … you swim in an ocean of stimulus and fear so long that you forget whether or not there was ever a shore. You forget yourself. You forget your identity as an autonomous human-in-full, connected with other humans that you work and play with in a non-instrumental sense. You forget your Pack.

You become a cartoon.

You become a believer in the “Yay, capitalism!” and “Yay, military!” and “Yay, college!” narratives used by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy to their advantage and your detriment.

And on and on we swim in the ocean of social abstraction.

This is Water.

It’s intentional. It’s done TO us.

It’s a system of belief and forgetfulness designed to objectify us … to turn us into predictable and thus manipulable objects. Not objects like a shoe or a rake, but “objects” as the term is used in computer code, as digitized receptacles for if/then functions to act upon.

Our contradictions become attributes. Our vectors become bitmaps. We are smoothed through a psychological Gaussian blur. We are digitized and depixellated. Our autonomous human IDENTITY becomes a programmable human ENTITY.

When I say that we are transformed into cartoons, I mean that quite literally.

Sound familiar, Neb? It should.

You see, Neb loves to play cards and games. He loves to gamble. And when he was in college in the mid-80s, he was in a fraternity that had a very infrequent poker game, maybe once a month or so. It was a wonderful game … low stakes, friendly camaraderie, really a lot of fun. But over a period of about 18 months over his junior and senior years, Neb corrupted that monthly low-stakes game of Community into a weekly high-stakes game of Alienation and Cartoon … into a system of belief and forgetfulness.

First, Neb introduced wild cards into the game.

Neb would always laugh to himself when someone bristled at poker games with wild cards, when he heard someone say “that’s not REAL poker”, as if there’s anything real about any of this. Neb knew that he would be able to run circles around that guy in calculating the revised odds of winning poker once he introduced greater volatility into the game. Neb also knew that greater volatility would result in more players hanging around in a hand longer than they should, given those revised odds. Neb also knew that greater volatility would result in players getting lucky more often, getting memorable hands more often … having more fun in the the game. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without wild cards.

Then Neb introduced credit into the game.

The original poker game was cash-only. Sometimes we wouldn’t even play with chips, just with dimes and quarters and dollar bills. There was no “bank”; you played with the cash you brought to the game, and that was it. But then Neb offered to hold the money and dispense the chips, so that in case there was some disparity when people cashed their chips in (which occasionally happened in a banker-less game), Neb would make up the shortfall out of his own pocket. From there it was an easy step for Neb to take IOUs written down on a little slip of paper rather than cash. Pretty soon Neb had a wallet full of IOUs. Pretty soon a game where losing $20 in cash felt awful became a game where losing $80 in little slips of paper felt like nothing. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without credit.

Then Neb raised the stakes.

This one was easy. Once you were no longer limited to the cash you brought to the table and once you no longer had to settle up your debts at the end of the game, it just made sense to raise the stakes. In truth it made no sense, of course, but Neb drove this with a narrative … that players were afraid if they didn’t jump in at the new betting levels. Amazing how college-age males don’t want to show that they’re scared or that the game is too big for them. Amazing how non-college-age males do the same. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without high stakes.

Then Neb introduced derivatives.

Derivative games are different than just adding wild cards to standard games. Derivative games are different rule sets, with additional zero-sum outcomes that allow for more ways for the better player to win with the same distribution of cards. Keep in mind that Neb played poker before Texas Hold-em and Omaha took over the world. This was dealer’s choice, and a derivative game with the right stimulus/response pattern could spread around the table like a virus. Side-pot games are a derivative rule set, as are hi-lo games, as are match-the-pot games. Neb introduced a game with SIX betting rounds, plus hi-lo, plus match the pot if you lost.  Tons of action, everyone felt like they were in the game all the way to the end, and then there was that wonderful frisson … that thrill of anticipation and ENORMOUS pot-matching potential loss … if you stayed in for that final, central card. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without derivatives.

And then Neb stole their tells.

This was the big one.

All of the regulars had different tells, but they all had one. Here was the one that made the most money for Neb. This was Kurt’s tell.

The final action of a hi-lo game, where both the best hand and the worst hand split the pot, is to declare whether you are going high (best hand) or low (worst hand) or both ways (must win both the high contest and the low contest with different 5-card combinations from your set of cards). To declare for high you put one chip in your clenched fist, to declare for low you put zero chips in your fist, and to declare for both you put two chips in your fist. You do all this underneath the table, you wait until everyone shows their fists publicly, and then everyone reveals the number of chips in their hands at the count of three.

When Kurt was declaring high (or both ways, I guess), his clenched fist looked like this:

And when Kurt was declaring for low, his fist looked like this:

That little crook of the thumb (and the ability to quickly calculate the right play as soon as Kurt’s hand came up above the table) was by itself worth a couple of thousand dollars to Neb, playing low stakes poker over a period of months. I won’t get into the math, except to say that knowing Kurt’s tell – and so always having the option of going the other way in a hi-lo game – gave Neb a +$2.00 to +$3.00 expected value for every hand dealt once the game was geared up to maximum loss levels. And they dealt a lot of hands. This was the secret to the system that Neb set up … he had a consistent positive expected return on every hand that was dealt, while the other players had a consistent negative expected return. And you may think that would make for a short-lived game where everyone quickly tired of playing with Neb, BUT:

  • The gameplay was thrilling, both on each hand and over the course of the night. When you won, you won big and you believed that you had played brilliantly. Neb would tell you so. When you lost, you believed it was because you were “unlucky”. You believed that it wasn’t your “fault”. Neb would tell you that, too.
  • On any given hand, Neb was subject to apparent volatility, which he played to the hilt. Neb loved to lose the occasional hand on a bad beat!
  • While there was very little true volatility for Neb, there was a ton of volatility for the other players. Meaning that everyone would have the occasional big win, and that was all that was needed to keep them coming back and believing in the game. And forgetting that the game had ever been anything different.
  • While Neb had a consistent positive expected return on every hand dealt, the player from whom Neb stole his tell typically had a positive expected return on that hand. A small positive return, to be sure, but enough to condition players over time to persist in their tells and believe that they were particularly good players in Neb’s game. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough … everyone who sat at Neb’s table long enough came to believe that they were a great poker player. LOL.

And so did Neb. Also LOL.

It wasn’t playing poker really well that made Neb a lot of money in that college game. It was building a fear and stimulus machine that made Neb a lot of money. It was building a system of play that predictably zapped and rewarded the other players, so that they believed that a negative expected value system was a positive expected value system, and they forgot that an alternative system of play was even possible. It was turning his fraternity “brothers” into stimulus/response objects, turning them into abstracted versions of themselves. It was turning them into cartoons.

And in doing so, Neb became a cartoon himself. Not an objectified and manipulated cartoon (yet), but a cartoon nonetheless. Neb is neither clear-eyed nor full-hearted.

See, Neb didn’t really PLAN to objectify his fraternity buds. It just came naturally to him. That is, in fact, the scariest thing about Neb … he really does swim effortlessly in this ocean of social abstraction and manipulation. It’s something I have to talk to him about pretty much every day, especially when he steals the password to my Twitter account.

Looking back on it now, I am grateful beyond measure that online poker and poker-as-a-business did not exist for Neb in the mid-80s. Because if they had, Neb’s life would have gone down a VERY different path. A bad path. And of course, so would have mine.

Because Neb was not wise enough to understand the WHY of his poker winnings. Because Neb, like Matt Damon’s character in Rounders, would have thought he was talented enough to “compete” at a higher level. As if talent is enough to succeed in a fear and stimulus system geared against you. As if talent is enough to succeed in a rigged game. Because that’s what a fear and stimulus system IS … a rigged game.

Ah, youth.

For every too-clever-by-half coyote like Neb Tnuh who confuses talent for being on the right side of a fear and stimulus system, there is a scaled version of that same system that exists to objectify and stimulus/response Neb like he objectified and stimulus/responsed his frat brothers, and there is a scaled version of THAT system on top of that, and a scaled version of THAT system on top of that.

There are at least four nested systems of believing and forgetting in our modern social lives. Sooner or later, we all become objectified cartoons. We all get bitmapped. We all start to believe that our negative expected value game is a positive expected value game, and we all forget that an alternative game is even possible. Some part of us, anyway. The Neb part of us.

Few people today remember The Peter Principle, pretty much the first wildly successful pop psychology business management book, published in 1969. It’s a great book, with a simple one-line lesson: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

So here’s the Epsilon Theory variation, call it The Neb Principle:

In mass society, every citizen tends to rise to his level of cartoonification.

At every level of this nested and fractal system of believing and forgetting, the micro-structure time-line is the same. This is the exhaustive set of steps to establish a system of believing and forgetting, at any level of organization. It succeeds without fail, always and in all ways.

1. Introduce wildcards

2. Introduce credit

3. Raise the stakes

4. Introduce derivatives

5. Steal the tells

In every field of economic endeavor … in every manifestation of political competition … in every nook and cranny of our modern social lives … a system of believing and forgetting is being established following exactly these steps. It wasn’t necessarily planned that way. But with enough coyotes and enough time, it emerges. It IS. And it is a VERY stable system.

I believe that we are at a tipping point today. I believe that we are on the cusp of these systems becoming irreversible. Or at least irreversible without a cataclysmic Fall. I believe that the process of the Long Now is now being ensconced at a global scale … at the scale of an oligarchic economic system of believing and forgetting and a statist political system of believing and forgetting.

How? Through mastery of the fifth stage of the Long Now micro-structure.

By stealing our tells.

That’s what Facebook does. That’s what Google does. That’s what the Democratic Party and the Republican Party do. That’s what Wall Street does. That’s what every S&P 500 company does. That’s what every central bank does. That’s what every powerful economic and political organization in the world does today.

They steal our tells. At scale. At global scale.

You know the word for what they do with our stolen tells, don’t you? It’s Nudge.

And you know the true superpower of a Nudge, right? We believe we’re making a real choice. We believe we’re playing a positive expected value game by making that choice. We forget that making a choice on their terms and using their language is itself a choice.

I’ve written a lot about Nudging States and Nudging Oligarchs, and I won’t repeat all that here. If you want to know where I’m coming from, start with this note from two years ago: Clever Hans.

I will repeat this, though.

What do we DO about our Hollow Markets and our Broken Politics?

Actively engage with yourself to recognize how many of your behavioral choices in the world of investing and politics aren’t a free choice at all, but are instead derived from a clever “choice architecture” imposed by others. You probably won’t change your behavior. That’s kinda the point of these pleasantly skinned Hobson’s Choices — they’re offers you can’t refuse. But the day you recognize the choice architectures that enmesh us is the day you start making true choices. It’s the day you start thinking and reading differently. It’s the day that everything starts to change for yourself, your family, and your clients.

Actively engage with yourself to create a critical thinking curriculum that adds to your reservoir of free-thinking autonomy. Read more history. Read more biography. Read more science fiction. Every day. Watch a lot less CNBC and CNN and Fox and all the rest. I know we can’t wean ourselves from Facebook and Twitter. It’s our bottle and we’re addicted. I am, too. But take the time to listen to someone whose political or market views you emotionally dislike and force yourself to see the world through those views, not as an adversary but as another thinking, feeling human being. Every day. Educate yourself, don’t train yourself.

Actively engage with others to spread the word. To educate, not to train. We treat others as free-thinking autonomous human beings, not as manipulable objects. Never as objects, even if it means losing the client or losing the election. This is how we fix things. Bird by bird. Voice by voice. From below, not from above. As wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.

So I stand by all that. I think it’s all more important than ever. It’s a really good start on a personal regimen to resist the micro-structure of the Long Now, to keep your personal Neb in check.

But it’s not enough. There’s not enough time.

We have to confound the stolen tells. At scale. At global scale.

So I’ve got two new ideas … two forms of public resistance to share with you … two forms of hiding your tell that I think can scale … two forms of bypassing the fear and stimulus systems that make cartoons of us at every turn. One for politics and one for economics.

In politics, I want to start a movement to encourage write-in candidates. I want to give everyone the tools and the information they need to bypass the political party system. We organize to do this, using the Epsilon Theory megaphone as our springboard. Maybe we write in joke candidates. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we write in ourselves. It won’t be noticeable at first. And then it will. And then it becomes a self-sustaining narrative. And then … who knows?

In economics, I want Epsilon Theory pack members to know who the other Epsilon Theory pack members are, so that they can do business with and share information with like-minded people directly. I want to give Epsilon Theory pack members the tools and the information they need to bypass the information system of the tech giants and Wall Street. Obviously this is a voluntary thing. Don’t worry, pack-members-who-work-at-the-Fed, I’m not going to out you (and there are a lot of you). But we have a LOT of people actively engaged with Epsilon Theory. Tens of thousands of people, all over the world, in every financial institution of any significance you can name. Our active cooperation in a mutual game without fear, without stimulus, without cartoons … a mutual game of full-hearted engagement … it won’t be noticeable at first. And then it will. And then it becomes a self-sustaining narrative. And then … who knows?

Imagine that.


PDF Download of single chapter (Paid Subscription Required): The Long Now, Pt. 3 – Wink


PDF Download of entire series (paid subscription required): The Long Now


Domino Theory

Some people really get into dominoes. Here, for example, is a link to a 30-minute video of falling dominoes. No music. Just dominoes. For 30 minutes. It’s had close to 10 million views.

I’m not THAT into dominoes, but I am into figuring out what’s next for changes in the Fed narrative and how that impacts markets.

To recap, three weeks ago I published a note called The Old Man and the Sea, where I set out my belief that the narrative connection between monetary policy and any actual impact on the real economy had been diminished to the point of non-existence. Common Knowledge (what everyone thinks that everyone thinks) still made for a powerful connection between monetary policy and market impact, but it seemed to me that Common Knowledge on real world impact had disappeared.

And then last week I wrote in Coal Mine, Meet Canary that I thought the recent dislocations in overnight repo were a sign that the Fed had lost its credibility as a non-political actor, that these emergency actions showed a loss of market faith in the stated price of money. My question was where this mistrust in the stated price of money would show up next, and my guess was HY credit.

Here are two quick updates on both notes …

First, here’s the overall Central Bank narrative map for September. What’s useful here is to look at the individual clusters or topics within this overall map of all the talk around Central Banks. What you’ll see is that there are really only two clusters that are focused on the US real economy (both on the lower left of the map) and they are on the periphery of the overall map rather than being central clusters. That’s the crucial attribute for interpreting an NLP network … centrality and size of the clusters … and the large, central clusters are about the market economy rather than the real economy.

Beyond looking at the clusters and sub-narratives within the larger Central Bank narrative map, we can also highlight articles that are relevant to specific search queries regardless of which cluster they fall within. We call this “attention”, and it shows us how much drum-beating is happening on a topic within a larger narrative. It’s like using a dye or a marker chemical in a microscope slide or a radiological study, so that it highlights the cells or tissues of interest. In this case, we set up queries to highlight the “cells” that are talking about real economy stuff (business investment, mortgages, consumption) within the Central Bank map, as well as a queries to highlight the “cells” that are talking about market economy stuff (equity and bond returns).

Here’s the attention visualization of real economy topics within the overall Central Bank narrative. Detached, sparse and barely there.

On the other hand, here is the attention map within central bank narratives for equity and bond returns. Strong and central to the entire network.

The takeaway, then, is that narrative drum-beating for Central Bank impact on the markets is still VERY strong, while there’s next to ZERO narrative attention being paid to Central Bank impact on the real economy. That disjuncture is (IMO) the critical aspect of how media coverage of the Fed is going to play out in markets over the next 12 months.

And then here’s the update on where this dislocation in Fed credibility is bubbling up. A friend on the sell-side sent me this chart yesterday, and I thought it was worth passing along to you. This is a slow-motion train wreck in the levered loan market.

The mistrust is spreading …


To My Fellow Billionaires …


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That’s Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff chatting with his buddy Jim Cramer in the top photo, and on the bottom that’s Benioff and his fellow multi-billionaire Ray Dalio from their perch at Davos, where they appeared to tsk-tsk us about populism and wealth inequality.

More recently, both Benioff and Dalio have been making a full-scale media blitz calling for the “reform of capitalism”, with appearances on 60 Minutes (Dalio) and appearances on … well, anyplace with a microphone or a website (Benioff).

And then yesterday there was this:


Marc Benioff: We Need a New Capitalism [New York Times]

To my fellow business leaders and billionaires, I say that we can no longer wash our hands of our responsibility for what people do with our products. Yes, profits are important, but so is society. And if our quest for greater profits leaves our world worse off than before, all we will have taught our children is the power of greed.

It’s time for a new capitalism — a more fair, equal and sustainable capitalism that actually works for everyone and where businesses, including tech companies, don’t just take from society but truly give back and have a positive impact.


“To my fellow billionaires …”

I mean, that’s an all-time cringey line, and the rest of this piece is just as drecky and anodyne. If Benioff had concluded with something like “I believe that children are our future”, it would not have surprised me one whit.

But all snark aside, what did surprise me was my strong negative reaction to all this.

How is this being full-hearted of you, Neb, to react so negatively to a guy who I have every reason to believe is sincerely interested in doing good?

Now, to be fair, Marc Benioff has never been my favorite guy, as he epitomizes (IMO) the robber baron financialization ethos of the past 20 years in capital markets. Last year I wrote an entire note on the subject:

Since Salesforce became a public company, its revenues have grown at a wonderful clip. It’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) and net income available to common shareholders… not so much.

Where have all the revenues gone, if not into earnings and net income? Well, if you read the Wall Street analyst reports about Salesforce “beating its earnings estimates” every quarter, you’d think that this chart above must be wrong. Why, Salesforce has lots of profits! Sure, it trades at a high P/E multiple, as befits a company with such great revenue growth, but the consensus Wall Street earnings estimate for this quarter is $0.50 per share. With 756 million shares outstanding, that’s about $375 million in earnings this quarter alone. What gives?

What gives (among other things) is stock-based compensation. The earnings estimates that you’ll hear the CNBC analysts talking about Salesforce “beating” or “missing” are pro-forma earnings. They do not include stock-based compensation. Actual money paid to employees? Yes, that’s included. Stock paid to employees in lieu of actual money? No, that’s not included. If you included stock-based compensation (and all the other pro forma adjustments) as actual expenses, which of course they are, then the consensus Wall Street earnings estimate for this quarter is not 50 cents per share. It’s 2 cents per share.

Since it became a public company in 2004, Salesforce.com has paid its employees $4.8 billion in stock-based compensation. That’s above and beyond actual cash compensation. For tax purposes, it’s actually expensed quite a bit more than that, namely $5.2 billion. The total amount of net income available for common shareholders? $360 million. On total revenue of $52 billion.

Note that none of this includes the money that Benioff himself made in stock sales from 2004 through 2010, where he sold between 10,000 and 20,000 shares of stock in the open market PER DAY, EVERY DAY, for SIX YEARS.

In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, I’m not even angry. It’s AMAZING what Benioff has been able to pull off for himself and his people. Nor am I suggesting in the least possible way that any of this is illegal or immoral or ethically suspect.

What I am saying is that you can sell a lot of software if you pay your sales team handsomely and investors don’t care about the expense or the profitability of those sales.

What I am saying is that this is only possible within a vast Wall Street and media ecosystem that tells investors not to care about the expense or the profitability of those sales.


So sure, Marc, tell me again how your recipe for the “reform” of capitalism does ANYTHING to change that Wall Street and media ecosystem that allowed YOU to achieve an almost unimaginable inequality of wealth.

I say ‘almost unimaginable’ because Ray Dalio’s wealth is even less imaginable.

And while I have less of a problem with how Dalio made his (truly) unimaginable fortune, I have exactly the same mistrust for Dalio as I do for Benioff and all the other “fellow billionaires” who now scold us on “solutions” for ain’t-it-awful wealth inequality.

My mistrust is not because they are rich.

My mistrust is because Marc Benioff and Ray Dalio spent their adult lives becoming as unequally wealthy as humanly possible. It wasn’t an afterthought. It wasn’t a side effect of noble deeds. It wasn’t luck. They succeeded in their direct, lifelong goal. And good for them!

But now they have to own it.

Was SOCIETY wrong to have allowed you to achieve mind-bogglingly unequal wealth? Or is society just wrong now … going forward, as it were.

Were YOU wrong to have made the accumulation of mind-bogglingly unequal wealth your life’s work? Or are others just wrong now … going forward, as it were.

Unless Marc Benioff and Ray Dalio are able to say YES to either of those questions … that either the world was wrong to allow these great fortunes or they were wrong to seek those great fortunes … then you’ll pardon me if I think they should STFU on the wrongness of great fortune-building.

You know, a really smart guy once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Not because the rich man is a bad man. The rich man hearing this lesson followed all the Commandments diligently. He was not a bad man, and neither are Benioff or Dalio.

It’s hard for a rich man to get into heaven because the Money gets in the way of the Good. It’s hard because his Love of Money – the devotion of an adult life to making lots and lots of money, and the self-imposition of an Identity based on making lots and lots of money – crowds out his Doing of Good, and you can’t change that life and Identity without repentance.

Repentance. Such an old-fashioned word, like honor or shame. Words that are in really short supply these days, especially among Benioff and his fellow billionaires.

Everything has a price. Including the creation of great wealth.

Especially the creation of great wealth.

Avoid those who search for your soul in a moneybag. For when they find a penny in the purse, it is dearer to them than any soul whatsoever.

That’s from Martin Luther, writing in 1517. He was in a bit of a tizzy about the sale of indulgences, where rich people could buy a dispensation from the Pope so that they could get into heaven.

Same.


The Common Knowledge of Inflation


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Until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.

That’s my fave Arthur Miller quote, from The Crucible.

Our Devil is inflation, and today we think him beautiful in Heaven.


Low consumer inflation opens the door for Fed to cut interest rates further   [MarketWatch]

The low rate of inflation, reflected in the CPI and other price barometers, may allow the Fed more leeway to trim rates if growth in the economy continues to slow. Wall Street puts a high chance the central bank will reduce rates again at the end of the month.

With inflation largely under wraps, the Fed has said it would be prepared to cut interest rates again if the outlook for the U.S. economy worsens. 


Common Knowledge is what everyone knows that everyone knows.

The strategic interaction (a “game” in the technical sense) by which Common Knowledge is created is, at its core, the process by which the crowd evaluates the crowd, and it is the primary driver of our lives as social animals, both in politics and in markets. It’s also the theoretical sun of the Epsilon Theory solar system.

For a crash course, here are some of the ET notes that have focused on the Common Knowledge Game, going all the way back to original Manifesto.


One of the most powerful and pervasive strands of Common Knowledge today is that inflation is practically non-existent.

Everyone knows that everyone knows that inflation is low.

We know this because we are told by our betters – by Missionaries in the game theoretic parlance – that inflation is low, and so it is … not in reality, but in the Common Knowledge. And that’s what counts.

It doesn’t matter if you personally believe that inflation is not-low. It doesn’t matter if there’s obvious data that inflation is not-low. It doesn’t matter because if you act publicly in opposition to the Common Knowledge … if you say that the Missionaries are wrong … then you will be punished for your public action so long as the Common Knowledge persists.

If you rely on the Missionaries for your bread and butter, then you can’t cross the Missionaries.

This is why the author of this MarketWatch article yesterday takes the most recent inflation data – some of which shows headline inflation rising less than expectations, but NONE of which shows core inflation falling – and frames it in a way that communicates “ho-hum, more low inflation just as far as the eye can see … green light for stimulus!”

Let me put it a different way.

Core inflation in the US is now at a 10-year high.

But we are told – in this ARTICLE ABOUT INFLATION – that precisely the opposite is true.

Is this “runaway inflation”? Of course not. But c’mon, man.

I’m really not trying to pick on this guy … I could pick 1,000 articles and 1,000 authors who do this, and we’re all just trying to make a living here. That’s my point, in fact. It’s not evil to write the article this way; it’s entirely rational.

This is also why “Don’t fight the Fed!” is not just a truism … it’s actually true.

But here’s the thing.

At some point a new Missionary will rise. One always does. And that new Missionary will change what everyone knows that everyone knows about inflation.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts on all this.

Sometimes Mr. Market is a Missionary.

The Fed has zero ability – ZERO – to combat that Missionary by raising interest rates and squelching the inflation narrative.

You saw what happened in December of last year. You saw how Jay Powell was taken out into the public square and politically emasculated for raising rates. You think that’s ever happening again? LOL. Sorry, market peeps, but the Fed does NOT have your back on this one.

Inflation is the Devil. Inflation is the Fourth Horseman.

And you’re not ready for the Fall.


In Chinese, the Emphasis is on the Second Syllable


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To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

That’s the Starbucks corporate mission statement. LOL.


Starbucks Faces An Escalating Crisis In Hong Kong  [International Business Times]

Starbucks’ stores in Hong Kong were recently burned and vandalized amid the escalating protests and riots across the city. The protesters justified the attacks by claiming that Maxim’s Group, which owns Starbucks’ licenses in Hong Kong and Macao, supports Beijing and opposes the protests.

The attacks started after Annie Wu, the daughter of Maxim’s founder, spoke out against the protests during the UN Human Rights Council meeting in mid-September. Speaking to CGTN (the overseas arm of China’s state-backed CCTV), Wu called the protests “riots” and expressed hope that the Hong Kong police force would “maintain law and order.”


The point of this article is that Starbucks is “between a rock and a hard place” when it comes to Hong Kong, as the franchisee who owns the HK stores – Maxim’s Group – is kissing Xi’s ring, which has resulted in some store damage from protesters, plus something of a Starbucks boycott in the city.

This is a bad take.

The truth is that there’s no rock and no hard place in the store damage or the HK semi-boycott.

The lost sales on 174 HK-based Starbucks are the cheapest insurance policy the company could possibly buy against an NBA-like disruption on its 3,748 other Chinese stores.

Even better, because the Starbucks stores are franchised to Maxim’s Group, who is more than happy to do the dirty work here, Starbucks itself can remain pleasantly anodyne.

Starbucks itself can wallow publicly in its mission statement of “inspiring and nurturing the human spirit” … everywhere except Hong Kong, that is.

Don’t get me wrong … it’s a very clever strategy. Very coyote-ish.

But ultimately, I think this strategy will prove to be too clever by half.

Why?

Because when you’re dealing with a government that says this …

We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.

… then ultimately you’re going to be forced to make a choice.

Do you want to preserve your authenticity and your brand, or do you want to preserve your earnings guidance and share price?

Choose one. You can’t have both.

THIS is the rock and the hard place that Starbucks and the NBA and Activision and Disney and GM and every other US corporation with consumer-facing products in China now find themselves between.

No one will believe me when I say this, but it’s the truth:

This is bigger than tariffs.


Coal Mine, Meet Canary

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Jay Powell announced today that the Fed would expand their balance sheet “organically”, meaning that the “temporary” expansion of overnight repo operations is about to become not-so-temporary. Rather than continue to treat the recent spike in demand for cash as an anomaly, the Fed will satisfy that demand going forward as an ongoing, more-or-less permanent adjustment to the Fed’s balance sheet.

“It’s a feature, not a bug.” That’s what Powell said yesterday.

Powell went to great lengths to explain that, in his mind at least, this balance sheet expansion was NOT Quantitative Easing, because the intention here was NOT to provide stimulus for the real economy or any impact on longer-term interest rates, but rather to “maintain a firm grip” over short-term rates. In Powell’s mind, balance sheet expansion is a rectangle and QE is a square … all QE is balance sheet expansion, but not all balance sheet expansion is QE. Whatever.

I say whatever because I don’t think the question I hear people asking – is this QE or isn’t this QE? – is particularly helpful. Why not? Because the engine that makes QE “work” (and by work I mean its impact in pumping up financial asset prices, not any supposed impact on the real economy) is not so much the mechanistic effect of balance sheet expansion per se, but is the narrative of monetary policy support in the form of associated forward guidance. And that narrative ain’t happening here.

So yes, this is balance sheet expansion. It’s more than just a “reverse-twist”, where the average duration of the Fed’s holdings are shortened but the size of those holdings remain the same. And if your definition of QE is balance sheet expansion, then you’re right in saying this is QE. What I’m saying, though, is that a mechanistic, balance sheet approach to the meaning of QE for markets is weak sauce. The WHY of balance sheet expansion matters a lot more for market impact than the FACT of balance sheet expansion.

But that doesn’t mean that Powell’s announcement yesterday is no big deal. It’s a huge deal. I think it’s a dead canary in the coal mine of monetary policy.

I think these emergency actions in the repo market – and to be sure, these ARE emergency actions – and now the expansion of the balance sheet to get more cash into the system, are the clearest indications yet that the Fed has lost its fundamental credibility with Mr. Market.

What do I mean by fundamental credibility? I mean the belief that the Fed sets the price of money on the basis of its legal mandate – full employment and price stability. Not to weaken the dollar. Not to juice the market. Not to influence the 2020 election. Not as a negotiating chip in a China “trade war”. Not as an overtly political entity.

It’s not possible to see recent Fed easing actions as anything but a non-mandated political reaction to external pressures.

It’s not possible because They’re. Not. Even. Pretending. Anymore. It’s not possible because Jay Powell TOLD US this is why they are easing. It’s not possible because Jay Powell TOLD US that the Fed is concerned about “maintaining a firm grip” on short-term interest rates.

THE FED IS CONCERNED ABOUT “MAINTAINING A FIRM GRIP” ON ITS CONTROL OVER THE PRICE OF MONEY.

As they say in the twitterverse, let that sink in.

Are these emergency actions in the repo market a problem for the market? No, not at all. The Fed can literally paper over this doubt in the overnight repo market by shoveling limitless money at the doubters. And they will. (see The Right Price of Money for more thoughts on this) But this is a disturbance in the Force. This is a dead canary.

What I’m trying to figure out is where this failure of credibility – this mistrust in the stated price of money – will bubble up next.

I think it shows up next in HY corporate credit. Unlike the overnight repo market, this will be a slow-motion train wreck. But I do think it will be a train wreck. And I don’t see how this gets papered over so easily.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. Still trying to figure it out. But I think I’m on the right track.


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Imagine That.


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I wrote this blurb about Imagination one year ago, in Things Fall Apart (Part 3) – Markets. I’m leading with it in this note because I want to show you the power of framing.


In the Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman, Dream of the Endless must play the Oldest Game with a demon Archduke of Hell to recover some items that were stolen from him. What is the Oldest Game? It’s a battle of wits and words. You see it all the time in mythology as a challenge of riddles; Gaiman depicts it as a battle of verbal imagery and metaphors.

Here’s the money quote from Gaiman:

“There are many ways to lose the Oldest Game. Failure of nerve, hesitation, being unable to shift into a defensive shape. Lack of imagination.”

I love this. It is exactly how one loses ANY game, including the games of politics and the games of investing … including the metagames of life. This isn’t just a partial list of how you lose any truly important game, it is a complete and exhaustive list. This is the full set of game-losing flaws.

  • Failure of nerve.
  • Hesitation.
  • Being unable to shift into a defensive shape.
  • Lack of imagination.

Of these four, lack of imagination is the most damaging. And the most common.

In the comic, Dream and the demon Choronzon go through an escalating series of metaphors for physically powerful entities, culminating with Choronzon’s verbal imagery of all-encompassing entropy and Anti-life. Dream counters by imagining a totally different dimension to the contest thus far, by making the identity statement, “I am hope.” Choronzon lacks the imagination to shift over to this new dimension and loses the game, at which point he’s wrapped up in barbed wire for an eternity of torment.


It’s true, you know. A failure to imagine a new game is the surest way to lose the old game.

And we ARE losing.


In the Land of Self-Defeat  [New York Times]

What a fight over the local library in my hometown in rural Arkansas taught me about my neighbors’ go-it-alone mythology — and Donald Trump’s unbeatable appeal.


In the few days since this article was published, it has more than 2,500 comments from NYT readers, almost all of them tsk-tsk’ng the locals in one way or another. Some of them are much harsher than a tsk-tsk.

I get it. I feel the same way. It makes me ANGRY and SAD that this rural county does not support the local library.

Then again, this library is a freakin’ Taj Mahal that cost millions of dollars in what is a really poor county. And now the locals are ANGRY and SAD that they must pay MOAR to keep it. I get that, too.

We’re ALL angry and sad, Arkansas locals and NYT readers alike, and we are ALL convinced that we are entirely justified in our very strong angry and sad feelings about this issue.

And then it hit me.

We are ALL being played.

These emotions are done TO us. Intentionally.

Here’s the game …

None of us – not the Arkansas locals, not the author of the article, not the readers of the article – can IMAGINE a local library that is not built by government and maintained by taxes.

It’s not that we can’t execute on a plan or that we don’t have the resources to build a library separate from gov’t. Those things may be true, but that’s not the game. That’s not how we’re played.

The game is to prevent us from IMAGINING a library separate from government.

Should governments build libraries? Of course!

AND.

And WE should build libraries. And WE should maintain them.

Does this Arkansas community have a WE with the desire to maintain their library? It sure doesn’t seem that way, does it?

But that’s okay. We got this.

By ‘we’ I may not mean you. You may not want to be part of this ‘we’. And that’s okay, too.

But there IS a ‘we’ for this. It just needs organizing. It just needs a Pack.

By the way, I’d bet my life that there are Pack members for this project in Van Buren County, Arkansas, too.

A $1 million endowment with a 5% real return can fund the librarian this county needs. Not just for a year or two. Forever. $100 million can fund 100 librarians. $1 billion can fund 1,000 librarians. Forever.

Imagine the good that 1,000 librarians across the country could achieve, year in and year out. Imagine THAT.

Who prevents us from imagining this?

Americans gave $6.5 billion to national political candidates in 2016.

That’s who.

We are TOLD that the “real” story of this Arkansas county library is something-something about Trump. That’s it’s something-something about Republicans and Democrats.

The citizens of Van Buren County believe this. The readers of the New York Times believe this. The author of the article surely believes this.

I tell you this is NOT the real story of this rural county library. I tell you this framing is a Lie.

This framing is designed to make us angry and sad. This framing is designed to make us give national political candidates our $6.5 billion. Most damaging of all, this framing is designed to make us give national political candidates our IMAGINATION, so that we cannot even conceive of an alternative to political life that does not depend utterly and completely on their verbal imagery and metaphors, on their internecine battle of wits where WE are their fodder and feed.

They keep us sick, you know.

They keep us hooked on this framing, in a political version of Munchausen-by-proxy.

The cure? Take back your distance.

You’ll find your local library to be the perfect place to start.

Make. Protect. Teach.

It’s a reframing of our political lives, without the … you know … politics.

Imagine that.


Fear Factor

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Yeah, yeah … I know that the Deep State is a powerful adversary. Or at least that’s what my MAGA buddies on twitter keep shouting at me.

But I’ll take the Deep State as an enemy any day compared to Steve Schwarzman and the rest of the Private Equity Tong looking to keep their carried interest tax treatment.


Wall Street is starting to take the possibility of an Elizabeth Warren presidency seriously — and strategists warn a victory could crush certain parts of the market  [Business Insider]

President Trump is still likely to win reelection “by a hair,” they added, but “investors are not appropriately weighting the likelihood of a Warren presidency.”

They may want to start paying attention, because a Warren victory — and an overall Democratic takeover of the Senate and White House — could hit the financial, health care, and energy sectors as progressive regulation hits bottom lines, the strategists said.

Apax Partners Says Warren, Ocasio-Cortez Shouldn’t Target Firm  [Bloomberg]

A spokesman for Apax Partners LLP says the private equity firm doesn’t have the kinds of investments in prison services that three progressive lawmakers are targeting in a letter they sent the company.

Wall Street Democratic donors warn the party: We’ll sit out, or back Trump, if you nominate Elizabeth Warren  [CNBC]

“You’re in a box because you’re a Democrat and you’re thinking, ‘I want to help the party, but she’s going to hurt me, so I’m going to help President Trump,’” said a senior private equity executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity in fear of retribution by party leaders.

Cramer: Wall Street executives are saying Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 bid has ‘got to be stopped’  [CNBC]

Leaders in the financial industry are really worried about the possibility of Sen. Elizabeth Warren becoming president, CNBC’s Jim Cramer said Tuesday.

CNBC’s David Faber tells Cramer that he’s hearing the same rumblings about Wall Street being fearful of a Warren presidency.


My favorite part of that last CNBC article is the bit where David Faber chirps in to say that he’s hearing the same thing.

I’ll just leave this here.

“Hey, Spike!”

In the immortal words of Bulldog Jim, “There’s always a bull market somewhere!”, and right now we are in a roaring bull market for unflattering Elizabeth Warren photos.

It’s the key to critical thought in a Fiat News world …

Why am I reading this NOW?

Welcome to The Long Now, where we must endure the constant stimulus that Management applies to our economy and the constant fear that Management applies to our politics.

Hey, we’ve only got FOUR MONTHS before the first actual vote is cast in the Democratic primary.

This is going to get SO much worse before it gets ANY better.


When the Product is Free, You’re the Product

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This isn’t a note about Facebook. It’s a note about online brokerage fees.

And it’s a note about Facebook.


Schwab Cuts Fees on Online Stock Trades to Zero, Rattling Rivals   [Wall Street Journal]

Charles Schwab Corp. said it would eliminate commissions on online stock trades, one of the most dramatic moves yet in a broad-based price war that is crimping profitability across the financial sector.

“There are certain parts of finance that have become commoditized,” said Devin Ryan, an analyst at JMP Securities LLC. “Trading is one of them.”

The end of commissions for trading is near as TD Ameritrade cuts to zero, matching Schwab   [CNBC]

TD Ameritrade said late Tuesday that the company will eliminate all commission fees for online U.S. stock, exchange-traded fund and option trades .

“We expect Fidelity and E*TRADE to react next and announce cuts to their own commission rates over the short-term, with both likely matching SCHW’s/AMTD’s zero rate,” said Credit Suisse research analyst Craig Siegenthaler in a note to clients titled “Finishing the Race to Zero.”

The match by TD Ameritrade failed to shore up its crashing stock. Shares of TD fell 2.5% on Wednesday following a 25% plunge on Tuesday, its worst day in 20 years. Analysts cited a higher reliance on commission revenue as a reason for its outsized decline.


Six months ago, I wrote the following about TD Ameritrade in a note called Pricing Power Part III: Government Collaboration. Here’s the money quote:

The most amazing thing to me about Vanguard’s advertising strategy is that sometimes I don’t think there is a strategy. Does Vanguard even have a TV ad budget? My best guess on Vanguard’s annual advertising budget is $100 million, twice what they’ve said they spent a few years back. And yet the AUM just comes rolling in, billion after billion after billion … trillion after trillion after trillion.

THIS is the power of a business model that fits the Zeitgeist of capital markets transformed into political utility.

You don’t have to convince people to give you money. You don’t have to construct a winning brand or marketing alpha. The secret of Vanguard is not only that they’re not wasting resources on unrewarded active investment management (in 2017, 45 employees managed $2 trillion in AUM in Vanguard’s equity indexing group … that’s $44 billion per employee!), but also that their cost of customer and asset acquisition is so low.

I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough. Financial services companies live and die on distribution. Clients come and clients go. But if you can keep your customer acquisition costs low, you will ALWAYS live to fight another day. No matter what happens to performance.

On the other side of that spectrum, you’ve got TD Ameritrade and their incessant advertising campaign for all active management, all of the time. My god, but I weary of the smarmy dude with the beard, telling me that trading options is “just like playing pool”. And yeah, go ring that 24/5 bell, Lionel. All night long. Haha. How droll.

In 2018, TD Ameritrade spent $293 million in direct advertising expenses, three times my estimate of Vanguard’s spend for one-twelfth the net asset increase. Forget about all the employee comp associated with sales and marketing, I’m just talking about direct advertising costs. For this money, the company gained 510,000 net new accounts in the year, meaning that each net new account cost $586 in direct expenses. Now is there churn on accounts, so that gross new accounts are more than 510k and customer acquisition costs are proportionally less? Yes. But I can’t see any way it costs less than $500 for TD Ameritrade to get a new client, before you even start considering employee comp. And these costs are going up. TD Ameritrade is guiding to $320 million in advertising expenses this year. Lionel doesn’t ring that bell for free, you know.

I’m not trying to make a direct comparison between TD Ameritrade and Vanguard. They play in different ballparks. I’m also not trying to say that one is a better managed company than the other. What I AM saying is that Vanguard has taken an easy business path and a robust business path, and TD Ameritrade has not.

Vanguard fits the financial services Zeitgeist perfectly, and TD Ameritrade fits not at all.

Not. At. All.

So I’m not going to belabor this point, because you can read the original notes for the full scoop.

But if you want to skip all that Monty Python exposition and get straight to the Meaning of Life, here are my two takeaways from this latest news.

As a consumer … don’t cry for Argentina, and don’t cry for the online brokerages who are taking their commission fees down to zero.

As the old saying goes (apparently it goes back to a 1973 exhibit by the artist Richard Serra) … when the product is free, YOU are the product.

It’s the same with these guys, who have the requisite scale to make a pretty penny from selling YOU (in this case your order flow) to the execution shops who are in the sausage-making business of grinding buyers and sellers together. Plus, and I know this is hard to imagine, but the execution of your trades is about to get even crappier than it was before. Still, free is a pretty hard thing to pass up. Works for me.

As an investor in or an employee of ANY financial services company, on the other hand … maybe it’s time for a good cry and a hard look at your future prospects.

As the Epsilon Theory saying goes … capital markets are being transformed into political utilities.

If you don’t see that every facet of the financial services world is being transformed into a collection of two or three massively scaled and massively regulated behemoth corporations – into ACTUAL utilities – then you’re just not paying attention. The common denominator of each of these winning behemoths is that they have a narrative that fits the modern Zeitgeist – a profoundly status quo spirit of the age, dominated by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy.

“Yay, free!”

Except it’s not really free.

And it’s no place I’d want to work.

(See, I told you this was also a note about Facebook.)


The Wages of Populism

I wrote a brief note today about the narratives surrounding emerging market investing, particularly what I call EM Investing™ – the business of EM as an asset class. The skinny of that note is that I believe there are two necessary narratives for EM Investing™ to work: EM Growth! and EM Property Rights!. Unfortunately, the former has been under siege for close to a decade, and the latter has suffered what I think is a mortal blow from the Argentina/IMF debacle. Can investment in idiosyncratic or even country-specific emerging market opportunities work in the absence of a supportive narrative structure? Absolutely. Will institutional flows into the asset class of EM work under these conditions? I don’t see how.

As you’ll see from the text of the EM note (reprinted below), I’m not unsympathetic to Argentina’s populist political movement (now with a healthy lead in the polls) seeking to defeat Macri and undo the IMF accords that provided loans of $57 billion in exchange for the usual IMF “structural reforms” enshrining the primacy of global capital. But regardless of what you or I may think about the merits of all this, I don’t think there’s any disputing that property rights (in this case those of foreign investors) are under assault in Argentina, and that it’s an intrinsic plank of that country’s populist movement.

“Assault” is probably too strong of a word. Let’s call it a subordination of property rights … a political reconfiguration of the meaning and primacy of property rights in relation to other political rights. But if you’re a foreign holder of Argentine sovereign debt, it probably feels like a physical assault.

My larger point is this: the subordination of property rights to other political initiatives and good things isn’t limited to Argentina. It’s everywhere a populist political movement exists, including the United States. I think the way it will present itself in the US is through massive changes in tax policy following the 2020 election, regardless of who wins. I think that no one is talking about this, much less preparing for this. I think that I’m not sure how to prepare for this.

As always, I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.


Yes, Deadwood is the greatest HBO series ever. Don’t @ me. I’m not having it. David Milch is MY President.

And while Al Swearengen is the greatest character of that greatest show, the fact is that it’s another character – George Hearst – who drives the narrative arc for the entire series (and movie). Distant oligarch George wants the gold. He wants the timber. He wants the land. He goes to great lengths and great expense over a period of several years to acquire those assets, and then, by God, he is prepared to go to even greater lengths and greater expense to keep those assets. Because once acquired, by hook or by crook, those assets are HIS.

You see, Deadwood is a show about property rights.

So is the Argentina – IMF show.


IMF not saying when Argentina could get last disbursement  [Associated Press]

The International Monetary Fund refused to say Thursday when it will disburse the last $5.4 billion of a massive loan to Argentina that was originally planned for mid-September.

IMF spokesperson Gerry Rice said at a news conference that he didn’t “have specific information on timing.”

Reporters had asked him whether the organization will wait for the winner of the October presidential elections to take office on December 10 before releasing the funds.


Over the years, I’ve written a lot about Emerging Markets (EM) and the narrative here in the US and other developed markets about EM Investing ™. Here’s the note from six years ago that started this thread, “It Was Barzini All Along“.

Six years later, and I wouldn’t change a word. What is the core narrative for thinking of emerging markets as an asset class? What is the line you hear over and over and over again?

“EM is where the growth is.”

Or in the Epsilon Theory lingo, Yay, EM growth!

Except it’s not working. Or at least it’s not the emerging market-ness of a country that has driven its economic growth (or lack thereof) over the past decade, but rather that country’s sensitivity and vulnerability to DM monetary policy in general and US monetary policy in particular.

Is there a meaningful secular growth reality in emerging markets? Of course there is. But that and $2.75 will get you a subway token. It’s not that the secular growth story in emerging markets is a lie or doesn’t exist. It’s that it hasn’t mattered. In the same way that value and quality and smarts and careful fundamental analysis haven’t mattered. For a decade now. You know … Three-Body Problem and all that.

But the growth narrative for EM as an asset class is just the public core narrative for EM Investing ™. There’s a non-public core narrative, too. A much more foundational narrative.

“Your property rights as a foreign investor will be preserved.”

Or in the Epsilon Theory lingo, Yay, EM property rights!

Christine Lagarde and Mauricio Macri in happier days

This is why the IMF exists. This is what the IMF does. This is what the IMF means.

To protect the property rights of foreign investors in emerging markets.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that the property rights of foreign investors SHOULD be protected. I believe that everyone – but most of all the citizens of emerging markets – benefit from the free flow of global capital, and global capital ain’t gonna flow freely to you if there’s a risk it gets stolen.

But I also believe that the local returns on global capital access are almost always hijacked by the local oligarchs, and even if they’re not hijacked completely, it is entirely appropriate for local governments to negotiate and renegotiate those returns on capital. I also believe that there’s nothing sacred about foreign investor property rights, as those rights are not at all the same as the rights of citizens. I also believe that a nation should be free to burn itself on the hot stove of nationalizing assets or defaulting on debt or otherwise choosing an antagonistic stance towards global capital.

And to be sure, it’s not like the IMF rides into town like George Hearst rides into Deadwood, surrounded by Pinkertons and committed to preserving his “rights” through the barrel of a gun.

But it’s not that different, either.

I know, I know … here I go getting all political again.

Look, you don’t have to agree with me about whether the subordination of foreign investor property rights is a good thing or a bad thing to agree with me that this subordination IS … that foreign investor property rights are, in fact, under a withering political assault in Argentina today, and that this isn’t just an idiosyncratic Argentina thing.

Why am I so down on investing in emerging markets AS AN ASSET CLASS?

Because I think you need two functioning narratives for EM Investing ™ to work.

  • Yay, EM growth!
  • Yay, EM property rights!

Today those narratives are broken. And until they’re somehow patched together again, I don’t think it’s possible to have the systemic narrative support required for institutional capital flows into emerging markets as an asset class.

It’s not just the Argentina narrative that’s broken. It’s not just the IMF narrative that’s broken.

It’s the entire EM Zeitgeist that’s broken.

What’s a Zeitgeist? It’s the water in which we swim.

Can idiosyncratic investments in emerging market opportunities work while the EM Zeitgeist is broken? Sure!

But can the business of EM Investing ™ work while the EM Zeitgeist is broken? I don’t think so.


The Emerging Market Zeitgeist is Broken

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Yes, Deadwood is the greatest HBO series ever. Don’t @ me. I’m not having it. David Milch is MY President.

And while Al Swearengen is the greatest character of that greatest show, the fact is that it’s another character – George Hearst – who drives the narrative arc for the entire series (and movie). Distant oligarch George wants the gold. He wants the timber. He wants the land. He goes to great lengths and great expense over a period of several years to acquire those assets, and then, by God, he is prepared to go to even greater lengths and greater expense to keep those assets. Because once acquired, by hook or by crook, those assets are HIS.

You see, Deadwood is a show about property rights.

So is the Argentina – IMF show.


IMF not saying when Argentina could get last disbursement  [Associated Press]

The International Monetary Fund refused to say Thursday when it will disburse the last $5.4 billion of a massive loan to Argentina that was originally planned for mid-September.

IMF spokesperson Gerry Rice said at a news conference that he didn’t “have specific information on timing.”

Reporters had asked him whether the organization will wait for the winner of the October presidential elections to take office on December 10 before releasing the funds.


Over the years, I’ve written a lot about Emerging Markets (EM) and the narrative here in the US and other developed markets about EM Investing ™. Here’s the note from six years ago that started this thread, “It Was Barzini All Along“.

Six years later, and I wouldn’t change a word. What is the core narrative for thinking of emerging markets as an asset class? What is the line you hear over and over and over again?

“EM is where the growth is.”

Or in the Epsilon Theory lingo, Yay, EM growth!

Except it’s not working. Or at least it’s not the emerging market-ness of a country that has driven its economic growth (or lack thereof) over the past decade, but rather that country’s sensitivity and vulnerability to DM monetary policy in general and US monetary policy in particular.

Is there a meaningful secular growth reality in emerging markets? Of course there is. But that and $2.75 will get you a subway token. It’s not that the secular growth story in emerging markets is a lie or doesn’t exist. It’s that it hasn’t mattered. In the same way that value and quality and smarts and careful fundamental analysis haven’t mattered. For a decade now. You know … Three-Body Problem and all that.

But the growth narrative for EM as an asset class is just the public core narrative for EM Investing ™. There’s a non-public core narrative, too. A much more foundational narrative.

“Your property rights as a foreign investor will be preserved.”

Or in the Epsilon Theory lingo, Yay, EM property rights!

Christine Lagarde and Mauricio Macri in happier days

This is why the IMF exists. This is what the IMF does. This is what the IMF means.

To protect the property rights of foreign investors in emerging markets.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that the property rights of foreign investors SHOULD be protected. I believe that everyone – but most of all the citizens of emerging markets – benefit from the free flow of global capital, and global capital ain’t gonna flow freely to you if there’s a risk it gets stolen.

But I also believe that the local returns on global capital access are almost always hijacked by the local oligarchs, and even if they’re not hijacked completely, it is entirely appropriate for local governments to negotiate and renegotiate those returns on capital. I also believe that there’s nothing sacred about foreign investor property rights, as those rights are not at all the same as the rights of citizens. I also believe that a nation should be free to burn itself on the hot stove of nationalizing assets or defaulting on debt or otherwise choosing an antagonistic stance towards global capital.

And to be sure, it’s not like the IMF rides into town like George Hearst rides into Deadwood, surrounded by Pinkertons and committed to preserving his “rights” through the barrel of a gun.

But it’s not that different, either.

I know, I know … here I go getting all political again.

Look, you don’t have to agree with me about whether the subordination of foreign investor property rights is a good thing or a bad thing to agree with me that this subordination IS … that foreign investor property rights are, in fact, under a withering political assault in Argentina today, and that this isn’t just an idiosyncratic Argentina thing.

Why am I so down on investing in emerging markets AS AN ASSET CLASS?

Because I think you need two functioning narratives for EM Investing ™ to work.

  • Yay, EM growth!
  • Yay, EM property rights!

Today those narratives are broken. And until they’re somehow patched together again, I don’t think it’s possible to have the systemic narrative support required for institutional capital flows into emerging markets as an asset class.

It’s not just the Argentina narrative that’s broken. It’s not just the IMF narrative that’s broken.

It’s the entire EM Zeitgeist that’s broken.

What’s a Zeitgeist? It’s the water in which we swim.

Can idiosyncratic investments in emerging market opportunities work while the EM Zeitgeist is broken? Sure!

But can the business of EM Investing ™ work while the EM Zeitgeist is broken? I don’t think so.


The Right Price of Money

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Everyone knows The Price is Right rules … closest bid, without going over.

It’s the same with overnight repo.


The Fed pumps another $75 billion into financial markets, continuing capital-injection plan   [Business Insider]

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday sold another $75 billion in market repurchase agreements, or repos, in a continued effort to calm money markets and bring interest rates within its intended range.

The round was oversubscribed, as banks requested nearly $92 billion in overnight repos, signaling strong demand for the asset.

The bank began a streak of repo offerings last week, marking the first time such assets were sold since the 2008 financial crisis. The central bank said the offerings would continue through early October.


Well, everyone else has given their take on the recent dislocations in overnight repo markets, so here’s mine.

Overnight repo is where the interest rates that central banks SET meet the interest rates that real economic actors USE.

And when the setting of those interest rates is no longer connected to ANYTHING about the real economy …

When central bankers are cutting interest rates even as growth is robust, unemployment is at 50-year lows, and the stock market is near all-time highs …

When, to coin a phrase, They’re. Not. Even. Pretending. Anymore. …

I think this spike in demand for overnight and short-term financing is a direct result of real economic actors trying to figure out what it MEANS when interest rates are a symbolic communication to markets rather than a clearing price of money in the real world.

I know what it would mean to me.

It would mean that I want the cash, not the securities, and I’d be willing to pay up to get it.

But if the real world price of overnight money is higher than what central bankers SAY is the real world price of overnight money … well, that breaks the world.

So it can’t happen. So no matter how much demand there is for the cash instead of the securities, the Fed will provide as much cash is necessary – truly, as much cash is necessary – to satisfy that demand at the price that the Fed SAYS is the right price of overnight money.

It’s not a crisis per se. There is literally no limit to the liquidity – i.e. cash – that the Fed can and will provide. But it is absolutely indicative of a profound shift in the common knowledge – what everyone knows that everyone knows – regarding the Fed and monetary policy.

And that shift will change everything. Not tomorrow. Not the next day. Not in the form of a market “crash”. But it will change everything.

See, it’s not just Powell and Draghi and the rest of the mandarin crew who are no longer pretending that monetary policy has any impact on the real economy.

It’s us, too.

Everyone now knows that everyone now knows that central banks are powerless to impact the real economy, but are the only thing that matters in the market economy. Everyone now knows that everyone now knows that the setting of the price of money is now a disembodied symbol of governmental will, all-important to the market economy and utterly … utterly! … ignored and immaterial to the real economy.

This is the new common knowledge about central banks and monetary policy … omnipotent in market-world, powerless in real-world.

Dislocations in the overnight repo market are the first place this new common knowledge is shaking the foundations of our political/economic world. It won’t be the last.

With the 2020 election – no matter who sits in the White House – the Fourth Horseman rides into town. And there won’t be a damn thing the Fed or the ECB can do about it.

The Long Now is going to get a LOT worse before it gets ANY better.


The Old Man and the Sea

I’m late with this note because I was in Paris for a BAML conference. I wanted to see what European allocators thought about Draghi and the most recent ECB monetary policy “stimulus”. I wanted to see if their narrative was the same as the narrative I’m hearing in the US about the Fed. It is.

The line between the anchor and the ship has been cut. The line between the fisherman and the fish has been cut.

Monetary policy – at its core the setting of the price of money – is no longer connected to the real economy. I mean, of course interest rates are connected to the real economy. But the setting of those rates, by both the Fed and the ECB, is no longer connected. The setting of those rates is now a disembodied symbol of governmental will, all-important to the market economy and utterly … utterly! … ignored and immaterial to the real economy.

My catch phrase these days is They’re. Not. Even. Pretending. Anymore. and that’s still totally in play. Draghi and Powell and the rest of the mandarin crew hardly even give lip service to the idea that cutting rates or expanding the balance sheet do anything helpful in the real economy. It’s really quite remarkable. There’s more talk about “fixing” the yield curve – as if the yield curve were a real thing – than about fixing corporate investment in property, plant and equipment.

But what I didn’t realize until this week is that it’s not just the central bankers who have cut the cord here. It’s everyone else, too. No one on either side of the Atlantic believes that central bank actions have ANY efficacy or connection to real economic outcomes. Worse, everyone knows that everyone knows that central bank actions have no connection to real economic outcomes. THIS is the new common knowledge, and I don’t know how or where or when, but I think it changes everything.  

For example, I think this cutting of the line between interest rate-setting and interest rate-using is the underlying reason for the bizarro-world we are experiencing in overnight repo, where $75 billion is not enough to satisfy the demands of the financial “system” for cold, hard cash, but maybe $100 billion is. Maybe.

Overnight repo is a rope between anchor and ship. It is where the interest rates that central banks SET meet the interest rates that real economic actors USE. What we are seeing with this huge spike in demand for overnight financing is, I believe, a direct result of real economic actors trying to figure out what it MEANS when the interest rates are a symbolic communication to markets rather than a clearing price of money in the real world.

I know what it would mean to me. It would mean that I want the cash, not the securities, and I’d be willing to pay up to have that cash. Because if the price of that real-world cash isn’t connected to monetary policy, then it can trade … anywhere.

I think there are a lot of these dislocations happening today, and I don’t think it’s an accident that they are happening in places where the real world meets the symbolic world. The WeWorks IPO would be another example.

I have no idea where this ends, and I’d be keen to get your thoughts on all this. But where I have a very clear idea is that the common knowledge around central banks has shifted dramatically. Everyone now knows that everyone now knows that central banks are powerless to impact the real economy (but are still the only thing that matters in the market economy). We’re adrift in a way that we haven’t been before.

Mailbag

I don’t write many Mailbag notes these days.

That’s partly because I’ve got so many words burning through my fingers to get out in new notes, but it’s even more so because we’ve created an ongoing Mailbag on the Epsilon Theory website … a place BY Pack members and FOR Pack members, where you’ll find some of the smartest commentary going, and where Rusty and I are in full engagement. At last count, we’ve got something like 2,000 published comments. It’s one of the best things on the internet today.

And yes, our Comment section is for paying subscribers only. It’s the smartest thing we ever did.

But these two conversations with Pack members deserve a wider circulation. They deserve a Mailbag note.

First from T.

Dear Ben,

Six months ago, you extended free premium membership to me because I work in Iraq as an archaeologist. I wanted you to get a sense of what the Epsilon Theory gift means to me.

Everyday we live the widening gyre in ways that Americans don’t appreciate. I work in Ashur, a world heritage site that one day, I hope, will be open again to the world. In order to work there, I rely on human kindness to make the impossible possible. To give you a sense of our gyre.

Archaeologists are targets. We can’t afford private security, so [REDACTED] donates his time and his bodyguard to escort us through ex-ISIS territory to get to Ashur. Once we cross out of the safe zone, the Jaboori tribe (a Sunni tribe) keep us safe with extra patrols and security. We drive through village after village where the war has left a trail of destruction. 

Once you arrive at the once beautiful world heritage site of Ashur, a picturesque complex of ruins on the banks of the Tigris, ISIS’ legacy is in full view. ISIS and its supporters had destroyed the museum, the protective cover for the royal tombs, and the ancient gateway. They systematically stripped the residential house and the local archaeology office. The first night, we slept on the floor, with a drip of water as a “shower”.

However, Ashur is a story of resilience. The local village (Sabka) did not have a single ISIS member. With a small private donation, we turned the taps back on, and we rewired the main house and the guard’s house so that we could get a reliable source of electricity. The local staff started work at 530 AM every day, working 14 hour days, in a country where 9 to 2 is considered sufficient. They donated their time so that our team could finish 3 full days of drone flights in order to take almost 12,000 aerial photographs of the site.

Afterwards, I flew to Baghdad to meet the Ministry and the team from the State Board of Archaeology and Heritage to discuss the future of Ashur. Everyone is helping because of a shared connection to a wondrous place that deserves better.

This is my pack. I hope you and Rusty will come visit it one day.

Best wishes from Iraq,
T.

I asked T. for permission to reprint his email, and he graciously agreed. Here’s a picture T. forwarded of the damaged archaeology office on the left and the damaged archaeology site on the right.

More importantly, T. also forwarded the overview deck for the entire project, which you can download here.

They’re using the drone-based photos to set up drone-based magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) studies on the structures below … amazing stuff.

This is our Pack.

AS BELOW, SO ABOVE.


And now from David H. as reprinted from the comments section of The Long Now, Pt. 2 – Make, Protect, Teach.

Long time listener, first time caller.

There are many thing I love about ET, but one of the best things about it is the truths it reveals – truths that are right in front of us but that we don’t see until they are revealed by the truthtellers of ET. I can’t tell you how many ET notes I have read that have made me say “Yes!” and helped me better understand the world.

But not this note.

The “Make, Protect, Teach” principle Ben espouses misses the mark for me. There is a kernel of truth to it, but only a kernel, and it would set us down the wrong path. The error in the “Make, Protect, Teach” principle is in equating a person’s occupation – what they do to make money and survive in this world – with that person’s value to society. Now, I’m not saying a person’s occupation has no correlation to their value to society, but it is not a direct correlation. Take teachers for instance. Just being a teacher doesn’t make you a positive member of society. There are lots of small-minded, petty, vindictive, and generally crappy teachers out there. And by the same token, being a corporate lawyer, banker, or member of business management doesn’t mean that you aren’t a positive member of society. These occupations (and, full disclosure, I am one of those nasty corporate lawyers everyone loves to hate) are all vital and necessary to modern society and have every bit as much intrinsic value to society as those extolled in the note as being “Make, Protect, Teach”-worthy.

For me, it is not what you do but how you do it. Let me explain. I believe that life is the Great Mystery; an unsolvable puzzle. We understand only a small fraction of what goes on around us, and can only hope to gain a slightly better understanding during our lives. My belief that we live in a fundamental state of mystery underlies my small “l” liberal beliefs. Given the unknowable nature of life, all people need the freedom to believe and act differently, to make mistakes (or what I believe to be mistakes), to be wrong (or what I believe to be wrong), to be different. There are three things that give value to my “mysterious” life:

1. Enjoyment. Have fun, Life is a gift!
2. Increasing my personal understanding of life’s mysteries. Think Big Thoughts!
3. Helping others (family, friends, acquaintances) do 1 and 2.

For me, the pursuit of the “good life” is the pursuit of these three things, for myself and others. Jim Valvano said there are three things we should do every day: 1) Laugh; 2) Think; and 3) Have your emotions moved to tears. I don’t do these every day, but I aspire to. I believe that there are three things that give any person “value” to society: 1) Do they enjoy life and help others enjoy their lives?; 2) Are they both truthful and truth-seeking and do they help other seek truth in their lives?; and 3) Do they love and support their family, friends, acquaintances as they seek to maneuver through life’s great mystery? So, an artist that creates a work of art that helps millions better understand life has great value to society. On the other hand, an artist that creates small-minded drivel that speaks to no one has very little value to society. It is not what you do, it is how you do it. “Make, Protect, Teach” is close, but for me it is “Spread Joy, Seek/Tell Truth, Love/Support Others”.

And by the way Ben, despite my disagreement with this note, you are the best Truthteller I have ever known. As always, thanks for making me Think.

– David H.

Heard.

When I wrote this note, I really struggled with the idea of giving too much citizenship “weight” to one’s JOB. As David points out, there are plenty of sociopathic, bad citizens who are also teachers or police or engineers. And there are plenty of full-hearted good citizens who are lawyers or management or bureaucrats. But I really do think (and there’s a long-winded Bayesian argument here that I won’t bore you with), that choosing a profession that inherently emphasizes some notion of service over money (in my lingo, Make/Protect/Teach) over a profession that inherently emphasizes the reverse is a MEANINGFUL SIGNAL that you are a citizen. It’s not the only meaningful signal! Coaching a kids’ soccer team … setting up a Maker space at the local library … spending your time (NOT just your money!) in service to your Pack … these are ALL meaningful (and sufficient) signals that you’re in the Make/Protect/Teach framework.

EITHER of these signals is enough for me to give you the presumption of citizenship in the M/P/T framework.

The reason I’m focused on signals is that I’m trying to find a recipe for a mass society – a nation of hundreds of millions of people – to organize their shared concept of citizenship on something that can’t be BOUGHT and something that requires SERVICE, without creating a caste system of “approved” jobs or a requirement for “national service”. Using signals (EITHER a job that inherently favors service over money OR an inherently service-oriented use of your time) will have lots of false positives (“bad” citizens who generate a “good” signal). But that’s far more just than a system that generates lots of false negatives (“good” citizens who do not generate a “good” signal).

I do disagree with David on two points. First, just thinking well-meaning and society-supporting thoughts is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient. There must also be ACTION taken in support of those thoughts. Second, the outcome of that action isn’t the important thing, it’s the EFFORT. It doesn’t matter to me if an artist does crappy art that no one likes. It doesn’t matter to me if a writer publishes a crappy blog that no one reads. What matters to me (and I know that I sound like a contestant on The Bachelorette when I say this) is that Makers/Protectors/Teachers are Making/Protecting/Teaching FOR THE RIGHT REASONS. That’s a really tough thing to evaluate in a mass society (much less a small society like the cast of a reality TV show) – which is why I focus on signals and erring on the side of false positives – but I think it’s the right place to make an evaluation.

One last observation … this is the first in-depth conversation I think I’ve ever had with my brother on the meaning of life (and all that). I’m 55 years old and he’s 53. If Epsilon Theory stopped tomorrow, experiencing THIS ALONE would have made it ALL worthwhile. Full-hearted engagement, bringing us closer together … THIS is our purpose. Thank you, David. I love you.

AS BELOW, SO ABOVE.


As Bill Simmons used to say, “yep, these are my readers.” He meant it as a joke after a silly email, and that’s how I’ve used it in the past, too. But no silly or funny emails today. Just clear eyes and full hearts. Because … you know … can’t lose.

Yes, these are OUR readers, and this is OUR Pack, and this is OUR platform for thought and action in service to that Pack.

Watch from a distance if you like. But when you’re ready … join us.


Hello Darkness My Old Friend

There are a couple of tectonic plates moving in narrative-world of late, just like there have been a couple of tectonic plates moving in market-world. The market-world tectonic plates are factors like momentum and value, and lots of people are talking about them. The narrative-world tectonic plates are inflation and central banks, and that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Our most impactful structural attribute of narrative is Attention – the level of “drum-beating” for a certain narrative relative to all of the OTHER narratives taking place. It’s not just an increase or decrease in the number of articles that drives an increase or decrease in narrative Attention … it’s much more an increase or decrease in the centrality and the connectivity of the articles.

These measures of centrality and connectivity within a giant multi-dimensional data matrix don’t lend themselves to two-dimensional visualizations very well, at least not nearly as well as other attributes like Cohesion and Sentiment, so I won’t be showing those visualizations here (although you can see them in the attached data packet). But just to reiterate … I believe Attention is the most important measurement we take in the Narrative Machine.

So I think it matters that the Inflation narrative is close to all-time lows in its Attention score coming into September, while both the Central Bank narrative AND the Trade & Tariff narrative are at all-time highs in their Attention scores coming into September.

Our rule of thumb regarding Attention (and this is true whether you’re talking about single stocks or sectors or macro issues) is pretty simple: fade high Attention and accumulate low Attention.

More specifically, I’ve got the following takes from these narrative Attention scores:

  • There is enormous market complacency around inflation. Just enormous.
  • Markets are far more likely to be disappointed by Central Banks today than encouraged.
  • The all-China-all-the-time news cycle is at a peak.

How does this play out? I dunno. If there were any signs of the US Recession narrative actually taking root in domestic US issues, then I’d say that it’s time to study up on the stagflation playbook. But as I described in last week’s letter, there’s nothing about the US in the US Recession narrative … it’s all non-US issues. Still, even if it’s not an all-out stagflationary world, we’re going to have some whiffs of that stagflationary odor. Gold? I don’t think you get hurt with all this complacency on inflation, but it’s hard for gold to work so long as Central Banks are front and center. Keep in mind that I think markets are likely to be disappointed in Central Bank action, not that they’ve lost faith in the ability of Central Banks to control market outcomes.

My best take at putting all this together? The back-up we’ve seen in rates over the past two weeks has the narrative legs to back up more. Maybe a lot more. And that’s not going to make anyone happy. Especially the guy in the White House.


Narrative is not a Disease. Narrative is Us.

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s financial media in bite-size form.

To receive a free full-text email of The Zeitgeist whenever we publish to the website, please sign up here. You’ll get two or three of these emails every week, and your email will not be shared with anyone. Ever.



Wall Street Used to Crunch Numbers. They’ve Moved On to Stories.   [Bloomberg]

U.S. business may have been talking itself into a slowdown.

That’s one way of reading a study by the Carlyle Group, using techniques from narrative economics –- an emerging field set to gain momentum with the publication of Nobel prize-winner Robert Shiller’s much-anticipated book on the topic.


So this article is part of the publicity effort behind Robert Shiller’s forthcoming book, Narrative Economics. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the book after it’s formally released, and I’m glad that narratives are getting more mainstream attention, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Robert Shiller is a really smart guy. Yep, I think I’ll leave it there for now.

Ah, who am I kidding?

The central metaphor for Shiller’s book is that narrative = disease, that (some) narratives are “contagious”, and that the spread of an “infectious” narrative “virus” can best be understood through the toolkit of epidemiology.

I think this is … wrong … not just in its conception, but even more so in how Shiller’s book will be USED.

Narrative is NOT a virus. Narrative is not something that exists outside of us. Narrative is not something that infects us or just happens to us if we are unlucky enough to catch it.

NO.

Narrative is intentional. Narrative is motivated. Narrative is done TO us. Narrative is – quite rationally – embraced BY us.

Narrative is entirely human, entirely part and parcel of what it MEANS to be the human animal … a social animal.

I can’t express strongly enough how dangerous I think it is to conceptualize narrative as a contagious disease, rather than as the medium of a social game – the Common Knowledge Game.

Why?

Because a contagious disease is something to be CURED.

And that’s exactly how Shiller’s book is going to be used.

Here are some more quotes from the Bloomberg article above:

Central bankers can’t just watch. They need to promote their own narratives, too –- and it’s getting harder.

“I’m a shaman,” said Stefan Ingves, governor of Sweden’s Riksbank. “I’m a weatherman, I’m a showman, and I’m an economist.’’ But above all: “I’m expected to be, and I am, a storyteller. I tell stories about the future.”

“And if I’m successful in my storytelling,” he added, “people say: ‘Hmm, that’s reasonable.’’’

That’s Stefan Ingves, storyteller and central banker, shaking his finger at us and telling us HOW TO THINK about economic news and economic facts. Thank goodness!

Because in the Shiller universe of narrative = disease, it is the “reasonable” narratives of experts and academics that serve as the medicine for narrative epidemics like Bitcoin or market panics or gold buggishness or real estate booms or “talking ourselves into a recession”.

Just like these guys. They’re all doing EXACTLY the same thing that Ingves is doing.

Although I’d wager a lot of money that only 70% of these guys would be seen by Shiller or Ingves as promoting a “reasonable” narrative.

I think it’s a cop-out to think of narrative as disease, as something that just happens to us from time to time, as if it were some act of god.

Because if that’s how you think of it, then obviously that’s something that an “advanced” society should want to FIX. And how does an advanced society “fix” this?

Through the Nudge.

There is another way.

The other way is the anti-nudge. The other way is the encouragement of an individual autonomy of mind.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.

Not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up. Not from a political party, but from a social movement.

This is Make/Protect/Teach.


The Long Now, Pt. 2 – Make, Protect, Teach


PDF Download of single chapter (paid subscription required): The Long Now, Pt. 2 – Make, Protect, Teach


PDF Download of entire series (paid subscription required): The Long Now


Peter Paul Rubens, Saturn Devouring His Son (1636)

Every three or four generations, humanity consumes itself with the fang and claw of fascism and collectivism. Every three or four generations, we eat our own.

This is that time. This is the Long Now.

In politics it takes the form of a widening gyre, where the center cannot hold against the onslaught of polarizing political entrepreneurs who eliminate the political promise of the future, replacing it with the Long Now of constant political fear. In economics it takes the form of a market utility, where those same illiberal political entrepreneurs eliminate the economic risk of the future, replacing it with the Long Now of constant economic stimulus.

The first note in this series was about my personal response to the Long Now. Tick-tock.

Today’s note is about my political response to the Long Now. Make – Protect – Teach.

My question is not how we prevent or avoid the Long Now. Sorry, but that ship has sailed.

No, my question is how we keep the flame of small-l liberal thought and small-c conservative thought alive through the Long Now, so that it can light the world again when this, too, shall pass.

My question is … must we ALL become rhinoceroses?

Eugène Ionesco’s masterpiece, Rhinoceros, is about a central European town where the citizens turn, one by one, into rhinoceroses. Once changed, they do what rhinoceroses do, which is rampage through the town, destroying everything in their path. People are a little puzzled at first, what with their fellow citizens just turning into rampaging rhinos out of the blue, but even that slight puzzlement fades quickly enough. Soon it’s just the New Normal. Soon it’s just the way things are … a good thing, even. Only one man resists the siren call of rhinocerosness, and that choice brings nothing but pain and existential doubt, as he is utterly … profoundly … alone.

Yay, rhinoceroses!

Ionesco was born in Romania in 1909, spent most of childhood in France, and returned to Romania when he was 16. He got married and had a kid, pursued a career as a poet and playwright, but ended up fleeing Romania in 1942 for Marseilles. He wrote Rhinoceros in 1959 to describe the rise of the fascists in his homeland, a particularly nasty crew of Eastern Orthodox ultranationalists who went by names like the Iron Guard, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, the Greenshirts, and the National Legionary State.

The Iron Guard didn’t seize power in some bloody putsch, and they didn’t rise to ascendancy overnight. No, it took 13 years for them to come to power, contesting parliamentary elections all the way along. They got 0.4% of the vote in 1927, 1.1% of the vote in 1931, 2.4% of the vote in 1932, got themselves banned in 1933, returned with a new name in 1936, and won 15.8% of the vote in 1937. They were banned again in 1939 following the dissolution of parliament, but struck a deal with strongman-general-turned-politician Ion Antonescu and became the only legal political party in 1940.

And then the pogroms began.

Like the Bucharest pogrom of 1941, where – per the US attaché report to Washington after visiting one of the many massacre sites – “sixty Jewish corpses were discovered [in the meat-packing plant] on the hooks used for carcasses. They were all skinned … and the quantity of blood about was evidence that they had been skinned alive.” Their guts were hung around their necks and they were labeled “kosher meat”. Yes, some were children. A five-year-old girl is mentioned, flayed alive.

You know, I almost didn’t keep that last paragraph. Too harsh, I thought. Takes away from the flow of the larger argument I’m trying to make here, I thought. Some readers will get distracted, I thought, and some will get angry. Some will not recover or read beyond that paragraph, I thought.

I mean … there are no massacres in Ionesco’s play. There’s a lot of property damage. A few people trampled to death by the rampaging rhinoceroses. But there are no ritualistic mass murders. No butchery of five-year-old girls. Ionesco’s play is kinda cool, by which I mean it is not hot. Not emotional. It’s one long allegory. And yet he lived within 50 miles of Bucharest. He saw the 1941 pogroms with his own eyes!

Ionesco wrote about the PROCESS of the widening gyre and the Long Now, not the OUTCOME.

Why? Because he didn’t have to write about the outcome. Hell, his audience had LIVED the outcome.

I don’t have that luxury. All we know of mass murder is what we see on Criminal Minds.

So I’m keeping that paragraph. Because Central Europe. Because Biafra. Because Cambodia. Because Rwanda. Because (I suspect) Xinjiang. This is what it looks like when Things Fall Apart. I need you to be aware of the stakes.

I need you to be aware of what can happen – of what ALWAYS happens – when we become rhinoceroses.

But now I need to pull you back from the emotion and horror of the OUTCOME of the widening gyre that was Romania in the 1930s, just like I need to pull you back from the OUTCOME of the widening gyre that was Nigeria in the 1960s or Cambodia in the 1970s or Rwanda in the 1990s. Because otherwise I can’t bring home the Big Point that Ionesco was making about the PROCESS of the widening gyre and the Long Now. Which is this:

It wasn’t just the bad guys who became rhinoceroses.

Sure, the local brutes and rightwing martinets are some of the first to become rhinoceroses. But soon enough it’s the scientists and the academics and the logicians who turn. They are the worst of the lot. Not because they’re the biggest and baddest rhinos. But because they know better. Because they make a conscious and deliberate choice IN THEIR HEADS to lie to themselves and embrace a real and palpable evil IN THEIR HEARTS.

“All cats die. Socrates is dead. Therefore, Socrates is a cat.”

THIS is the syllogism of the logician turned rhinoceros. It’s nonsense. It’s logically wrong. But THIS is the lie that a rhinoceros scientist can convince himself is truth. THIS is how an intelligent, educated academic who loves his family and his dog can witness a pogrom. And look away. Ehh … gotta break a few eggs.

Romanian politics in the 1930s was a classic widening gyre, spread out over a decade, and policy followed the classic Long Now formula – more and more economic stimulus, more and more political fear-mongering. This was true of the fascists, for sure. IT WAS ALSO TRUE OF THE LIBERALS.

By February 1938, when King Carol II dissolved the parliament, nothing mattered anymore in Romanian politics. There was no “truth”. There was only narrative. There was only spectacle. There was only the naked exercise of power and the celebration of that naked exercise of power. You didn’t just seize control. You seized control, and then you threw yourself a big parade for doing it. This was true of the fascists, for sure. IT WAS ALSO TRUE OF THE LIBERALS.

That’s the kicker of Rhinoceros. It wasn’t just the bad guys who turned. It was everyone.

Just like it’s not just the bad guys who are becoming rhinoceroses in America today. It’s everyone.

How does THAT happen?

Through the embrace by ALL political actors of the idea that NOTHING MATTERS beyond that which accretes power, that power is to be sought for power’s sake and that once attained, power must be USED. Used for draining the swamp. Used for unmasking the corruption of the Trumps or the Clintons or (and here’s where I make a clever connection with 1930s Romania) the Hohenzollerns or the Bratianus. Used for undoing the obscene legislative influence of the Democrats under Nancy Pelosi or the Republicans under Mitch McConnell or (and here I go again) the National Peasant Party under Armand Calinescu or the Everything for the Country Party under Corneliu Codreanu.

It has all happened before. Many times. It is all happening again.  

You will hear that the danger at hand is so great, so existential, that NOTHING MATTERS other than combating that danger, that you must sacrifice your most precious possession – your autonomy of mind – to believe in the necessity of these political actions. You must not only think that it is possible for 2 + 2 = 5 if the political exigency is urgent enough, you must believe that it is necessary for 2 + 2 = 5. Orwell called this “collective solipsism”. I call it political nihilism. Either way, THIS is the politics of the Long Now.  

And once you believe that NOTHING MATTERS … poof! you have chosen to become a rhinoceros.

So you vote for Bob Menendez. You vote for Roy Moore. You excuse your party’s lies and your politician’s thuggery and moral corruption as necessary to prevent some greater evil.

Here’s the kicker.

There’s not a damn thing that you or I can do to stop this.

There’s only one thing that you or I can do. Luckily, it’s the most important thing.

We can refuse to become rhinoceroses ourselves.

Am I saying that we don’t fight against iniquity and evil? Am I saying that we just cede the field to the rhinos who are already running amuck?

So here’s where I’m going to lose a lot of you …

Yes, there will be a time to step boldly into the public political arena and help write a new set of rules, help re-establish political institutions that allow for cooperative gameplay and shared notions of the good life, and help instantiate small-l liberal and small-c conservative principles in a top-down manner.

But that time is not now.

Now is the time when the political institutions that allow for cooperative gameplay and shared notions of the good life are being shattered, and now is the time when they will continue to be shattered. Now is the time of the widening gyre, and you can no more command it to stop from the top-down than King Canute could command the tides. No, it’s precisely the opposite, where everything from the top-down will be devoted to rewriting the history and the narrative of the tides, intentionally moving us farther and farther into the Sea of Nudge.

Once you start looking for sharpies, you will see them everywhere.

That’s true for Trump today, and it will be true for whoever is in the White House in 2020. That’s political nihilism. That’s the way this ALWAYS plays out.

The Long Now is going to get worse before it gets better. A lot worse. Yes, that means more and more economic “stimulus”, more and more financialization and propping up of financial asset prices. You think there is a snowball’s chance in hell of a recession before the November 2020 election? LOL.

It also means more and more political fear-mongering and gyre-widening and nihilism-embracing. You think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that either the Democrat or Republican party will ever again represent anything other than the accretion of power for power’s sake? Also, LOL. The Republican party is already all MAGA all the time. It is already 100% rhinoceros. By the time the primary season is over, the Democrats will be the same. Look at our Election Index analysis … the narrative center of this election is almost entirely race and gender identity memes. It’s like a pure SJW rhinoceros-inducing potion.

Should you vote in 2020? Sure. But as a statement of your personal identity, not out of some misplaced notion of efficacy or consequentialism.

Should you engage in national politics with more than your vote at this stage in the widening gyre? I mean … if you must. But when you give your heart to the rhinos, you become one yourself. Or you get trampled.

My advice? Abandon the party as your vehicle for political participation.

My alternative? The Epsilon Theory Pack.

My platform? Make – Protect – Teach.

We had our first “Pack Meet-up” last Saturday at Rusty’s house … about 30 Premium and Professional subscribers from all over the East Coast.

The barbeque was Rusty’s labor of love. Four beef briskets, three pork collars, three slabs of pork ribs. There was no vegan option. Sorry, not sorry. Enough food to feed an army, but somehow it was inhaled. Everyone brought a bottle of something to share with the group. That – and a commitment to an evening of full-hearted conversation – was the only admittance fee. Age range was 23 years-old to 75 years-young. Was there a lot of money around that table? I guess. You’d never know it from the utter lack of conversational alpha-dog-sniffing … unique for any Fairfield County dinner I’ve ever been to.

Know what we talked about? The political.

Know what we didn’t talk about? NOT AT ALL? Politics.

What is the political if not politics? It’s how we lead our lives as social animals. It’s how we understand small-l liberal and small-c conservative virtues as they play out in our lives. It’s what we want to SAY to the world through our efforts to Make, Protect and Teach.

THIS is where we stand our ground. Not on some national political scale where we are either turned into rhinos ourselves or trampled into the mud. But on the personal scale. On the scale of our families and our communities. A scale where we can recognize ourselves once again, not as a means to some grand Statist end, but as members of a clear-eyed and full-hearted Pack.

The way through the Long Now is a social movement, not a political party.

A social movement based on resistance and refusal. A refusal to vote for ridiculous candidates. A refusal to buy ridiculous securities. A refusal to take on ridiculous debts. A refusal to abdicate our identity and autonomy of mind.

And it’s more than refusal. It’s more than just saying “Homey don’t play that”, more than just turning the other cheek. There is also action. But it is action in service to our Pack, not action in self-aggrandizement and the celebration of power itself.

I believe that a decentralized and service-oriented social movement at scale can thrive in the age of social media technology. I believe that a decentralized and service-oriented social movement can both inoculate our hearts from the top-down Nudges that push us into rhinocerosness, as well as fill us with a positive energy that reverses the pervasive alienation that creates the Neb Tnuhs of the world.

It’s a social movement for a revitalized foundation of citizenship. It’s Make – Protect – Teach.

There’s no primacy to these three rightful objects of political power and the citizenship which drives them. Put Teach at the top of the triangle. Spin everything 90 degrees. Marry two of them. Take them independently. Change the colors and the font size. I’m not trying to be symbolic here.

I’m trying to be Real.

I’m trying to provide an alternative to the abstracted world of narrative and cartoon that rules our mindfulness from the top down, in favor of a concreted world of actual human beings making things and protecting each other and teaching each other, where we act as Stewards of our children’s future rather than as Managers of our personal now.

What does it mean to Make?

It means you are an inventor. A manufacturer. An artist. A craftsman. A kid at a Maker Fair. A farmer. An engineer. A home builder. A coder. It’s the creation of some THING through the application of some creative IDEA.

What does it mean to Protect?

It means you are a soldier. A policeman. A fireman. An EMT. A nurse. A doctor. It’s a Neighborhood Watch. It’s a mechanic fixing a car. It’s also a unionization drive. It’s also a fiduciary managing a portfolio.

What does it mean to Teach?

It means you are a teacher, of course. Or a writer. Or a researcher. Or a priest. Or a home-schooling mom. It means you’ve got something to say to your Pack, and you’ve got the guts to say it.

What is NOT some form of Make – Protect – Teach?

Basically, if you are in the business of money (and that includes you, Crypto Bro) or in the business of business, then you are neither a Maker nor a Protector nor a Teacher. The sole exception to this – and it’s why this job is my universal suggestion to people who say they want to work in finance but in an authentic, socially-supportive way – is the fiduciary financial advisor. A fiduciary is a Steward. A fiduciary is a Protector. It is unlike any other role in financial services, and it’s the only role I’d want to have.

Management, both in the private and public sphere, is out. Banking is out, both investment and commercial. Corporate lawyering. Consulting. Trading. Sales and Marketing. Out. Out. Out. Out.

If you are using your time and brains to make more money for a profit-seeking organization, or if you are using your time and brains to manage the time and money of a non-making, non-protecting, non-teaching government organization … then you’re outside the Make – Protect – Teach framework. There are no hard and fast rules here, and I mean to be more inclusive than not. But I think you understand the distinction.

Let’s just say that zero of the Forbes 100 Innovative Leaders list (LOL!) would make my list of Make – Protect – Teach. Neither would our professional political “leaders”, including 99% of current Senators and Representatives. As for current and recent residents of the White House … don’t make me laugh.

And yes, I realize that the vast majority of people reading this note would not be practitioners of Make – Protect – Teach, at least not in their day job.

But it doesn’t have to be your day job. It just has to be your Identity.

This is a social movement for people who are IN the world-as-it-is but not OF the world-as-it-is. I’m not saying that your success IN the world, financial or otherwise, is either laudable or damning. I’m just recognizing that it is. I’m saying that your success IN the world, financial or otherwise, does not DEFINE you. Unless you let it.

Everyone can Make – Protect – Teach.

Even Jeff Bezos. I guess.

Today our system of social rewards and political power is based entirely on MONEY, not just in our laws and in our practices – which is bad enough – but even more so IN OUR HEARTS.

Yes, there’s a town full of rhinoceroses there, too.

It was not always so. It is not ordained that it must always be.

What’s at stake with the Make – Protect – Teach movement? Well, in some distant day, when we do in fact remake the rules and institutions of society, you’ll need to be a Maker, Protector or Teacher to be a full citizen. You’ll need to be a Maker, Protector or Teacher to vote. It will never be the route to making the most money, but that’s a feature, not a bug. I think the answer to teachers’ pay scales isn’t to pay them like a corporate lawyer or an investment banker, but to reward their superior social participation through superior political representation.

The American revolution was founded on the slogan “No taxation without representation”. That direct link between taxation and representation was severed long ago, and NOT to the advantage of the people who deserve it the most – the middle class and the working poor. I mean, if you think the middle class and the working poor are represented AT ALL in Washington … once again, LOL. It’s time for a new American revolution, and my slogan is “No representation without making, protecting or teaching.” Okay, maybe that doesn’t sing. How’s this: “No representation without real participation.” Yeah, I like that.

It used to be commonplace to think of military service as a prerequisite for citizenship, and by commonplace I mean universal in the societies where the small-l liberal virtues of democracy and the small-c conservative virtues of citizenship were actually invented. Today we get an occasional watered-down version of this floated in a half-hearted way by Grumpy Grandpas who want those darn kids to spend two years in some national service program. Well, it’s not two years, it’s a lifetime. And it’s not those darn kids, it’s all of us. And it’s not public service to the national government, for god’s sake, but private service of Making and Protecting and Teaching to whatever level of community sustains us … and we them. That’s how a pack works.

It will start small. It will start with your family. And over time it will grow to include your community, especially your physical community. Over time it will spread fractal-like everywhere.

As Below, So Above.

One day.

In the meantime, we evaluate our current crop of gyre-widening political candidates and policies on the basis of how little damage they do to a society based on Make – Protect – Teach. I’m not expecting any of them to get this. And I’m keeping my emotional distance from all of them. But I’ll talk with anyone.

Also in the meantime, this is how we change the structure of OUR social conversation, from “politics” to the political. Here’s my offer:

Put together a group of 20+ people who want to have a full-hearted conversation about Make – Protect – Teach, who want to think and act differently in their political lives. Let me know when you’re getting together with some advance notice, and I’ll be there.

I can help publicize and organize. We are 100,000 strong, all over the world. If you can find a sponsor to pay direct expenses of the meet-up, great. If you can’t, we’ll make it work anyway.

Dinner by dinner. Handshake by handshake. Conversation by conversation. That’s how we do it.

To paraphrase Margaret Mead, never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed Makers, Protectors and Teachers can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has!


PDF Download of single chapter (paid subscription required): The Long Now, Pt. 2 – Make, Protect, Teach


PDF Download of entire series (paid subscription required): The Long Now


The US Recession That Wasn’t

Before I get into the planned subject for this week’s note, I thought I would take a minute to describe what we’re seeing from a narrative perspective in the under-the-market-surface dislocations that have occurred over the past few days. As you’re probably aware, Value stocks (financials and energy listings, for the most part) have outperformed Growth stocks (tech listings, for the most part) to a degree that we haven’t seen in years.

None of this shows up in the specific financial sector, energy sector, and tech sector narrative data. On the contrary, the specific sector narratives are wrong-footed for these sharp shifts. This isn’t a financials story per se, or an energy story per se, or a tech story per se.

I think it’s a Value narrative in general that is playing out here (for how long is anyone’s guess), and a yield curve / negative interest rates story in particular. The “negative interest rates are inexorably coming to the US” story got a lot of play last month, as did “the ECB is going to go crazy with new policy” … both of which were terrible narratives for financials and the yield curve and value stocks in general. We’ll see what the ECB actually does on Thursday, but the narrative of the last week or two has been “well maybe we were being overly optimistic about ECB boldness” and you’ve seen the yield curve on both Bunds and USTs steepen a lot, with a commensurate move in financials and value stocks in general. The last few days have been a magnified version of that, playing out across everything that touches the “value complex”.

On a personal note – and I certainly don’t have any narrative analysis to back this up – the past few days (and the past six weeks, really) have felt like long periods of 2008 and 2009, where the only thing that mattered for markets was risk-on/risk-off, and that “factor” swamped whatever else you were doing in your investment process. This isn’t as all-pervasive as risk-on/risk-off, but whatever it is (rates-on/rates-off?), it’s as impactful in the value/growth context.

And now our regularly scheduled note.

We’re pleased to announce a sixth standing narrative Monitor – US Recession – to join our roster of Central Bank Omnipotence, Inflation, Trade & Tariffs, Credit Cycle, and US Fiscal Policy. We’ve produced historical values for the Recession Monitor through January of this year, and we can speak to the 2018 narrative patterns here.

You can see the full write-up for all six narrative Monitors here, but thought I’d speak directly to the Recession findings today.

Here’s a copy of the Recession narrative map for August.

The first thing you’ll notice is how many narrative sub-clusters there are for non-US issues … in a US Recession narrative map! Yes, most of these non-US clusters are outside of the narrative center of this map, but not all … German stimulus and ECB stimulus are at the heart of this map, and Chinese economic data is not far out from the center.

I’ve never seen a US-oriented macro query that yielded more non-US narrative clusters!

Moreover, the largest (and most central) narrative cluster has nothing to do with the real economy in the US, but is focused on the inverted yield curve and its “signal” of recession. Again, nothing to do with an actual recession in the US real economy.

Finally, as Rusty notes in the attached commentary, the cohesion of this August Recession narrative map is quite low, meaning that the sub-clusters tend to be spread apart and relatively unconnected with a common narrative theme.

Put it all together and here’s my conclusion: there is quite a lot of narrative attention being paid to the concept of a US recession … everyone is falling over themselves looking for a US recession. But it doesn’t exist. At least it doesn’t exist in the US real economy.

These recession fears should be faded.