Taiwan is now Arrakis

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He who controls the spice controls the universe.


Yep, that’s the plot of Dune, by Frank Herbert.

It is, in fact, the plot of the entire Dune series of books, one of the ur-texts of modern science fiction. There’s this galactic empire, see, and interstellar travel requires access to a certain narcotic drug, colloquially called “spice”, which only exists on one barren world – Arrakis. So if you want to control the empire, you have to control the supply of spice. And if you want to control the supply of spice, you have to control Arrakis.

I thought about all this when I read this little gem in the aftermath of Intel’s self-immolation last week … you know, the earnings announcement where this crown jewel of American innovation and strength told us that they had decided to financialize themselves into oblivion. Or as I like to call it, “pull a GE”.


TSMC gets large Intel chip order, Apple R&D plant (Seeking Alpha)

Taiwan-based newspaper Commercial Times reports that Intel has ordered 6nm chips from TSMC for next year.

The unprecedented Intel order would reportedly include 180,000 wafers, only slightly behind the raised 200K order from AMD, major TSMC client and Intel rival.

TSMC’s leading-edge capacity is now fully-booked for the first half of next year.

In other news for the pure-play foundry, Economic Daily News says Apple is setting up a display tech R&D plant within TSMC.


The world’s principal supplier of semiconductors – the spice of OUR global empire – is now Taiwan.

Forget about Hong Kong. Forget about the Uighurs. Forget about the virus. Forget about the Trade Deal. Forget about the South China Sea. Forget about all the reasons you’ve been told that the United States should or could be at odds with China.

And by forget, I don’t mean that you should really forget. What I mean is that none of these reasons really matter anymore. None of these reasons are spice. None of these reasons are the supply of semiconductors – the sine qua non of modern global power.

There is no future where the United States can both maintain its existential national interests and allow the world’s principal supplier of semiconductors to come under the direct political control of China.

And there is no future where China can both maintain its existential national interests and allow the world’s principal supplier of semiconductors to remain outside its direct political control.

Thanks a lot, Intel. Thanks a lot, Bob Swan. Thanks a lot, Jack Welch. Thanks a lot, all you Wall Street wizards of financialization.

Taiwan is now Arrakis. It’s now the most important country on earth. And we WILL fight over it.


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Is This The Real Life?

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I got a ton of email and engagement from Professional subscribers on my email last week regarding the narrative signals we were seeing in our Epsilon Theory Narrative Alpha (ETNA) – signals that give us a tech sector short in our sector rotation model portfolio. And for good reason. It’s one thing to put on a tech sector short position as a trade, even though it’s been a widow-maker trade for what … years, now? Seems like years. But the big questions – and the questions that underpinned almost all of the correspondence with subscribers – are these:

Are we seeing a reversal in the Growth > Value narrative?

Is this, at long last, the turning point for Value investing?

Short answer: yes and maybe.

I know that’s disappointing, but the slightly less short answer is, I think, more encouraging.

Slightly less short answer: yes and yes for a trade (weeks to months); don’t know and don’t know for an investment (months to years).

To explain what I mean by the slightly less short answer, let’s start with that email from last week (Tuesday, June 15):

As most of you are aware, last year we launched a set of S&P 500 sector rotation indices based on our research that we call Epsilon Theory Narrative Alpha (ETNA). We’ll have a number of announcements forthcoming shortly regarding ETNA, most notably that we recently signed a distribution and trade execution agreement with UBS around these indices, and if any ET Professional subscribers are interested in an update call (or an introductory call) on ETNA, I’d be happy to oblige.

But the reason I bring ETNA up today is that our market neutral model portfolio generated a rare set of signals coming into July … a significant short on the technology sector, based on the overwhelming narrative “drumbeating” regarding tech (Narrative Attention in our framework) in June. Our behavioral signals are contrarian – when the drumbeating gets really loud (and especially if happens fast), it’s time to get out – and, boy, was the tech sector drumbeating loud and fast in June! That short position looked pretty stupid for the first week and a half this month, as the tech sector continued to outperform every other sector (again, this is a market neutral model, so it’s the relative performance across sectors that we’re tracking here), but the past two days have been … gratifying. The tech sector reversal on Monday was particularly striking from a technical (no pun intended) perspective, but this is exactly the sort of behavioral “snap” that our narrative signals were anticipating. We’ll see if this tech sector underperformance continues over the rest of the month, but this break in the narrative potentially has broad implications, including a long bias towards value – whether that’s expressed as a value factor, as value-oriented sectors, or as a value style of discretionary investing.

Since that email, value continued to beat growth (and Dow beat Nasdaq) on that Weds and Thurs, gave back some of the ground on Friday, gave back a LOT of the ground this Monday, retook ALL of that ground and more this Tuesday, and then we had today – Weds, July 22.

Today started off like it was going to be a return to our regularly scheduled entertainment – growth over value, same as it ever was. But then, just like last Monday when all of this “stuff” started in the first place, tech/growth took a midday header and we ended up with another day of value ascendant.

So I’ll say this (again) … these midday out-of-the-blue reversals are exactly the sort of market behavior I expect when a dominant market narrative is breaking. These mysterious no-news reversals are exactly the market behavior you get when Common Knowledge shifts.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2014 (wow, I’ve been writing these notes for a long time!) in When Does the Story Break:

Fortunately for us, game theory provides exactly the right tool kit to unpack socially driven dynamic processes. To start this exploration, we need to return to the classic thought experiment of the Common Knowledge Game – The Island of the Green-Eyed Tribe.

epsilon-theory-when-does-the-story-break-may-25-2014-tribe

On the Island of the Green-Eyed Tribe, blue eyes are taboo. If you have blue eyes you must get in your canoe and leave the island the next morning. But there are no mirrors or reflective surfaces on the island, so you don’t know the color of your own eyes. It is also taboo to talk or otherwise communicate with each other about blue eyes, so when you see a fellow tribesman with blue eyes, you say nothing. As a result, even though everyone knows there are blue-eyed tribesmen, no one has ever left the island for this taboo. A Missionary comes to the island and announces to everyone, “At least one of you has blue eyes.” What happens?

Let’s take the trivial case of only one tribesman having blue eyes. He has seen everyone else’s eyes, and he knows that everyone else has green eyes. Immediately after the Missionary’s statement this poor fellow realizes, “Oh, no! I must be the one with blue eyes.” So the next morning he gets in his canoe and leaves the island.

But now let’s take the case of two tribesmen having blue eyes. The two blue-eyed tribesmen have seen each other, so each thinks, “Whew! That guy has blue eyes, so he must be the one that the Missionary is talking about.” But because neither blue-eyed tribesman believes that he has blue eyes himself, neither gets in his canoe the next morning and leaves the island. The next day, then, each is very surprised to see the other fellow still on the island, at which point each thinks, “Wait a second … if he didn’t leave the island, it must mean that he saw someone else with blue eyes. And since I know that everyone else has green eyes, that means … oh, no! I must have blue eyes, too.” So on the morning of the second day, both blue-eyed tribesmen get in their canoes and leave the island.

The generalized answer to the question of “what happens?” is that for any n tribesmen with blue eyes, they all leave simultaneously on the nth morning after the Missionary’s statement. Note that no one forces the blue-eyed tribesmen to leave the island. They leave voluntarily once public knowledge is inserted into the informational structure of the tribal taboo system, which is the hallmark of an equilibrium shift in any game. Given the tribal taboo system (the rules of the game) and its pre-Missionary informational structure, new information from the Missionary causes the players to update their assessments of where they stand within the informational structure and choose to move to a new equilibrium outcome.

Before the Missionary arrives, the Island is a pristine example of perfect private information. Everyone knows the eye color of everyone else, but that knowledge is locked up inside each tribesman’s own head, never to be made public. The Missionary does NOT turn private information into public information. He does not say, for example, that Tribesman Jones and Tribesman Smith have blue eyes. But he nonetheless transforms everyone’s private information into common knowledge. Common knowledge is not the same thing as public information. Common knowledge is simply information, public or private, that everyone believes is shared by everyone else. It’s the crowd of tribesmen looking around and seeing that the entire crowd heard the Missionary that unlocks the private information in their heads and turns it into common knowledge. This is the power of the crowd watching the crowd, and for my money it’s the most potent behavioral force in human society.

Prior Epsilon Theory notes have focused on the role of the Missionary, and I’ll return to that aspect of the game in a moment. But today my primary focus is on the role of TIME in this game, and here’s the key: no one thinks he’s on the wrong side of common knowledge at the outset of the game. It takes time for individual tribesmen to observe other tribesmen and process the fact that the other tribesmen have not changed their behavior. I know this sounds really weird, that it’s the LACK of behavioral change in other tribesmen who you believe should be changing their behavior that eventually gets you to realize that they are wondering the same thing about you and your lack of behavioral change, which ultimately gets ALL of you blue-eyed tribesmen to change your behavior in a sudden flurry of activity. But that’s exactly the dynamic here. Even though there is zero behavioral change by any individual tribesman for perhaps a long period of time, such that an external observer might think that the Missionary’s statement had no impact at all, the truth is that an enormous amount of mental calculations and changes are taking place within each and every tribesman’s head as soon as the common knowledge is created.

For almost the entire duration of the game, the activity is internal and invisible, not external and visible, but it’s there all the same, bubbling beneath the behavioral surface until it finally erupts. The more tribesmen with blue eyes, the longer the game simmers. And the longer the game simmers the more everyone – blue-eyed or not – questions whether or not he has blue eyes. It’s a horribly draining game to play from a mental or emotional perspective, even if nothing much is happening externally and regardless of which side of the common knowledge you are “truly” on.

If you haven’t observed exactly this sort of dynamic taking place in markets over the past five years, with nothing, nothing, nothing despite what seems like lots of relevant news, and then – boom! – a big move up or down as if out of nowhere – I just don’t know what to say. And I don’t know a single market participant, no matter how successful, who’s not bone-tired from all the mental anguish involved with trying to navigate these unfamiliar waters.

These punctuated moves don’t come out of nowhere. They are part and parcel of the Common Knowledge Game, no more and no less, and understandable as such.

I know that was a terribly long quote, so probably skipped by most. But the skinny is this:

The more I see these midday mysterious reversals in the growth/value relationship, the more I think that there is a Common Knowledge shift happening and not just a month-by-month shift in the Wall Street drum-beating for this sector or that sector.

I know we’ve got the latter, that month-by-month shift in Wall Street drum-beating, and that’s good for a trade.

I suspect that we’ve got the former, a shift in the Common Knowledge, but I need to see more narrative data to be sure. If confirmed … that would be more than a trade. It would be a long-term investment thesis, in this case a reversal in the multiyear growth-and-tech-uber-alles strategy that has laid waste to value investing.

A Common Knowledge shift is a Big Deal. It’s not something I want to jump the gun on proclaiming, and there’s no need to time this down to the nanosecond, precisely because it IS a long-term investment thesis. I expect to gain a lot more insight on this as we launch our Factor Narrative Monitor sometime in August.

And whatever I discover, you’ll be the first to know.


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Overserved

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A friend of mine came into a meeting one morning looking a tad worse for wear and tear after a night out frequenting some Houston bars. Someone asked him how he was feeling. His response: “Clearly I was overserved.”

I thought about that line – which I have enthusiastically stolen – while reading an email I got this morning from a multi-billion dollar asset manager promoting their new special purpose vehicle (SPV) to buy shares in SpaceX, shares which this asset manager will receive at the end of July as part of the SpaceX Series N funding round.

Yes, Series N. The letter N being the 14th letter of the English alphabet, and thus presumably the 14th private funding round for SpaceX.

To be clear, I’m not a client of this asset manager. I don’t know anyone at this asset manager. I have never had any relationship – personal or professional – with this asset manager. It’s an unsolicited blast email to some bcc list of “Dear Friends”.

The unsolicited blast email came with a few “Space X Confidential and Proprietary” powerpoint slides, chock full of chart crimes like this, where the specific $5 billion addressable market has more graphical surface area than the hand-waving $900 billion addressable market:

And no, if you send me an unsolicited blast email asking me – a complete stranger – for money, I don’t care if you mark your deck “Confidential”. That’s true whether you’re a Nigerian email scammer or a multi-billion dollar asset manager, because the difference isn’t as great as you apparently think it is.

But I’m not here to talk about SpaceX. I don’t know anything about SpaceX other than that – apparently – they publish misleading graphics in their pitch decks. Certainly SpaceX would not be unique in that regard.

No, I’m here to talk about the terms this asset manager is asking for investing in their SPV.

For an existing client of this asset manager, which I am not, it’s a 1% annual management fee and a 10% carried interest for the asset manager.

For a new client of this asset manager, which I would be if I were so inclined and were a “qualified purchaser” (I’m not and not), it’s a 1.5% annual management fee and a 15% carried interest for the asset manager.

To be clear, this asset manager isn’t “managing” anything. I would be paying them 1.5% of my investment every year for access to this initial purchase of SpaceX shares. I would be giving my money to this multi-billion dollar asset manager, and they would in turn give most of the money to SpaceX to get shares in this Series N stock sale for the SPV. But the asset manager will keep a healthy chunk of my money in this SPV as cash to pay for “fund expenses” and (probably) their “management fee”, and my capital account will be debited as if it were cash every year for these expenses and fees.

But wait, there’s more …

No Limited Partner will be permitted to withdraw capital from the Fund without the General Partner’s consent, which may be granted or withheld in its sole discretion and which is generally not expected to be permitted. … As such, prospective investors should not invest unless they are prepared to retain their LP interest until the Fund liquidates, which investors should expect will not occur for a very significant period of time.

LOL.

That’s from the micro-font disclosures page. And yes, it means exactly what you think it means. Your investment is locked up … forever. And the asset manager will collect fees on your investment … forever.

There is no exit here unless SpaceX decides to do an IPO, and when Elon can do an (apparently) infinite number of private stock transactions at whatever valuation Elon’s heart desires, why would SpaceX ever do that?

Now you might do that anyway if employees and early investors clamor loudly enough for the liquidity that an IPO can give them, but this multi-billion dollar asset manager is showing a clever solution for that pressure: get all the liquidity you need by offloading your stock to the rubes AND collect an annual fee for your “generosity” AND get a 15% share of any profits if a miracle occurs and there is an IPO a decade from now.

Whee! Isn’t investing fun!

Who are the rubes? With a minimum investment of only $250,000 to participate in this SPV, it’s clear to me that this offering is being targeted at small “family offices”, the greater fool in the current Wall Street ecosystem.

Yes, this investment opportunity is limited to qualified purchasers, which means that you must have $5 million in investment assets to participate. The asset manager is doing this because having only QPs as investors will exempt the SPV from registering with the SEC under the Investment Company Act of 1940, which is a Big Deal for the asset manager.

Once upon a time, being a QP – i.e., having $5 million in investment assets – was a decent indicator that you were an “institutional investor”, a Big Boy who could take care of himself. Today, every Tom, Dick and Harry “family office” has $5 million in investment assets. It’s a total that’s well below the minimum that many blue chip investment advisors require before they will take you on as a client.

Everyone is all in a tizzy about day traders and Robinhood and Dave Portnoy. “Ooooh, they’re going to have such a hangover when the bubble pops. Ooooh, they don’t understand how investing works.”

Pffft. They’ll be fine.

The investors facing a hangover are small family offices, plied with endless offerings of fee-heavy SPVs and SPACs by multi-billion dollar asset managers. They’re the ones overserved by Wall Street today.


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The New Monitors Are Here!

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I don’t expect everyone to be as excited about the arrival of the new ET Professional Narrative Monitors as Steve Martin was about the arrival of the new phonebooks … but it’s close!

Here’s the replay for the Narrative Monitor webinar we held via conference call and screenshare for ET Pro subscribers:


I’ve also attached the slide deck we used in the presentation here: ET Pro Narrative Monitor deck.


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Snip!

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Last December, we published a note titled The Long Now, Pt. 4 – SNIP! , as part of the Long Now series, which is still, I think, the best entry point for someone new to Epsilon Theory to figure out what all the fuss is about.

The note is about the cutting of the cord between taxes and spending, which is pretty much the last thing that keeps us citizen astronauts tethered to the spaceship of non-totalitarian government. And in that note I wrote this:

I think that whoever is elected in 2020, we will see a $2 trillion spending plan enacted in 2021.

If it’s a second term for Trump, it will be the 2021 Make America Great Again Act, and we will call them “Infrastructure Bonds”.

If it’s a first term for a Democrat, it will be the 2021 Take Back America Act or something like that (I suppose if it’s President Biden we can hope for the 2021 No Malarkey Act, although I’m rooting for the 2021 OK, Boomer Act), and we will call them “Green Bonds”.


Since then we got this in April:

Trump calls for $2 trillion infrastructure package as part of coronavirus response (CNBC)

And now this on Tuesday:

Joe Biden Unveils $2 Trillion Plan to Combat Climate Change (WSJ)


LOL. See, this is why you become a paid subscriber to Epsilon Theory. We can’t always write tomorrow’s headlines today. But we do try.

More seriously, though, I want to leave you with the conclusion to Snip! . Once the tether between taxes and spending is cut:

There are no limits to the retributive and malicious use of taxation as a political weapon.

There are no limits to the retributive and malicious use of spending as a political reward.


This isn’t a Democrat thing and this isn’t a Republican thing. It’s a power thing.

The Long Now is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better, and there is strength in numbers. Watch from a distance if you like, but you are welcome to join our pack.


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We the People? We the Pack.

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Epsilon Theory PDF Download (available to everyone): We the People? We the Pack.



Back in early April, I wrote this about our battle with the coronavirus:

There is no country in the world that mobilizes for war more effectively than the United States. And I know you won’t believe me, but I tell you it is true:

This will be #OurFinestHour.

Since then, our leaders have totally botched the Covid-19 war-fighting effort. I mean our leaders at every level of government and of every political stripe, and I mean that it has been spectacularly botched. Covid-19 is now endemic within the United States, meaning that it is neither effectively contained nor effectively mitigated. Meaning that it is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Meaning that tens of thousands of Americans get sick with this disease every day, and between 500 and 1,000 Americans die. Every day.

It didn’t have to be this way. As I write this note, Germany – a large country with a federal political system and the 4th largest economy in the world – is reporting two Covid-19 deaths today. Two. Japan – an even larger country and even larger economy – is reporting one Covid-19 death today. One.

But here’s the thing. Yes, our political leaders have been a horror show. God knows I’ve been railing about them for months. But there’s another awful truth at work here.

We the people have failed our nation more than the politicians.

In fact, I honestly don’t believe we still have a nation. We have a country, of course, but that’s just an administrative thing … here are the borders, here is your social security number, here are the rules for how we do things. A nation is both less than a country and much, much more. A nation is the meaning of a country. A nation is the embodiment of We the People.

It’s not that I think being an American has no meaning. It has a lot of meaning to me. It has a lot of meaning to many people. It has some meaning to almost everyone.

It’s that being an American no longer has a shared meaning.

It’s the widening gyre that we’ve been writing about for years now. Literally for years.



I just never thought it would come to this.

I knew that high-functioning sociopath politicians would continue to do their high-functioning sociopath thing, where with one hand they pump out culture-porn telling us that what really matters is our attitude towards Goya beans or Columbus statues, and with the other hand they pump out TRILLIONS of dollars into a money-laundering scheme we like to call “monetary policy”.

All while MILLIONS of Americans are getting sick and MILLIONS of Americans are out of a job and TENS OF THOUSANDS of Americans are dead.

I just never thought we would embrace this evil – and that’s what it is – in our heart of hearts.

I just never thought that we would reject empathy for our fellow citizens in favor of sociopathy, that we would think of our fellow citizens as mattering less in a horrific economic and public health emergency because they live in a different part of the country or have a different political affiliation.

Not all of us. But a lot of us. A critical mass of us. Enough of us so that the rest of us disengage from cooperative gameplay on a national scale, not out of emotion or spite, but out of cold, hard rational choice. It’s the inevitable outcome of our domestic social games transformed from Coordination Games into Competition Games.

From Virtue Signaling, or … Why Clinton is in Trouble:

The hallmark of a Coordination Game is that there are two equilibrium outcomes possible, two balancing points where the game is stable. Yes, one of those stable outcomes is mutual defection, where everyone pursues their individual goals and everyone is worse off. But a stable outcome of mutual cooperation is at least possible in a Coordination Game, and that’s worth a lot. Here’s a graphical representation of a Coordination Game, using Rousseau’s famous example of “the stag hunt”.

Fig. 1 Coordination Game (Stag Hunt)

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-hunt-together-alone-chart

The basic idea here is that each player can choose to either cooperate (hunt together for a stag, in Rousseau’s example) or defect (hunt independently for a rabbit, in Rousseau’s example), but neither player knows what the other player is going to choose. If you defect, you’re guaranteed to bag a rabbit (so, for example, if the Row Player chooses Defect, he gets 1 point regardless of Column Player’s choice), but if you cooperate, you get a big deer if the other player also cooperates (worth 2 points to both players) and nothing if the other player defects. There are two Nash equilibria for the Coordination Game, marked by the blue ovals in the figure above. A Nash equilibrium is a stable equilibrium because once both players get to that outcome, neither player has any incentive to change his strategy. If both players are defecting, both will get rabbits (bottom right quadrant), and neither player will change to a Cooperate strategy. But if both players are cooperating, both will share a stag (top left quadrant), and neither player will change to a Defect strategy, as you’d be worse off by only getting a rabbit instead of sharing a stag (the other player would be even more worse off if you switched to Defect, but you don’t care about that).

The point of the Coordination Game is that mutual cooperation is a stable outcome based solely on self-interest, so long as the payoffs from defecting are always less than the payoff of mutual cooperation. If that happens, however, you get a game like this:

Fig. 2 Competition Game (Prisoner’s Dilemma)

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-prisoner-cooperation-defection-chart

Here, the payoff from defecting while everyone else continues to cooperate is no longer a mere 1 point rabbit, but is a truly extraordinary payoff where you get the “free rider” benefits of everyone else’s deer hunting AND you go out to get a rabbit on your own. This extraordinary payoff is what Trump is saying is possible when he talks about America “winning” again. But it’s not possible. Not for more than a nanosecond, at least, because there’s no equilibrium there, no stability in either the upper right or bottom left quadrant. You want to pass a modern version of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act to “win” a trade deal? Knock yourself out. As in 1930, you’ll enjoy those benefits for about two months before every other country does the same thing against you. And in about 12 months, as in 1931, every bank that’s levered to global trade finance goes bust. Whee! There’s one and only one equilibrium in a competition game — the “everyone defect” outcome of the bottom right quadrant — meaning that once you get to this point (and you will) you can’t get out. The stability of the Competition Game is the stability of permanent conflict.

More importantly than what happens in any of these international games, however, is what happens in our domestic games. Blowing up our international trade and security games with Europe, Japan, and China for the sheer hell of it, turning them into full-blown Competition Games … that’s really stupid. But we have a nasty recession and maybe a nasty war. Maybe it would have happened anyway. We get over it. Blowing up our American political game with citizens, institutions, and identities for the sheer hell of it, turning it into a full-blown Competition Game … that’s a historic tragedy. We don’t get over that.

But that’s exactly what’s happening. I look at Charlotte. I look at Dallas. I look at Milwaukee. And I no longer recognize us.

I wrote this four years ago. I no longer recognized us in 2016. Today in 2020 under the stress of a plague? It’s done. There’s no shared or coordinated position on what it means to be an American. Our domestic political lives are in the stable equilibrium of a Competition Game. There’s no reversion here. There’s no pendulum to swing back the other way.

The United States as a powerful country can easily last another 500 years.

America as a nation, though, as a common knowledge construct of what it means to be a citizen of the United States … RIP.

There’s little to be gained by asking who or what’s to blame for the end of America as a nation. As with any big event, it’s terribly overdetermined, which is a ten-dollar word that means shit happens. My personal view is that Trump is much more than a catalyst but something less than a determining event, more like the introduction of trench warfare and mustard gas in World War I than the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Well-meaning people may disagree. Don’t @ me on this, please, because we don’t have time for this conversation.

We don’t have time to look behind because everything is at stake in looking forward.

There’s everything to be gained by asking how we move our country out of this Competition Game and back into a Coordination Game where a shared sense of national identity is at least possible.

There’s everything to be gained by asking how an America of shared meaning – a nation of liberty and justice for all – can be reborn within the country of the United States.

And everything to be lost if we don’t. Because I promise you the Nudging Oligarchs and Nudging Statists are hard at work developing their version of a new operating system for this American reboot.

I still believe this will be our finest hour.

Not of the America that was. But of the America that can be.

What is the question that matters? It’s the only question that ever matters as you experience an existential crisis.

It’s the question Butch asks Marsellus in Pulp Fiction.


What now?


Let me tell you what now.

Now we help our American brothers and sisters survive both the greatest public health crisis of our lives AND the greatest economic dislocation of our lives. Even those brothers and sisters who would never do the same for us. Even those brothers and sisters who are out of their freakin’ minds in the culture-porn simulated world of MAGA-this and SJW-that.

You’ve heard of the expression that there are no atheists in a foxhole? Well, guess what … there are no Democrats and no Republicans in a foxhole, either. There are no New Yorkers and no Texans, no race and no class. There is only us – human beings who are in the fight of our lives, who want to do the right thing for ourselves and our families, who used to share more than just a border and a history with the other human beings in this American foxhole. And can once again.

Now we reject the New Story of sociopathy and division. Now we sing the Old Story of empathy and shared sacrifice.

Now we reject the logic of the flock. Now we embrace the logic of the pack. Now we turn the other cheek. Not because it’s the kind move or the sweet move. But because it’s the smart move.

Now we make. Now we protect. Now we teach.

Now we act.

From the bottom-up.

With the strength of the pack.


Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,

And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;

For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

That’s from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. I know he’s been canceled, but I don’t care. I think he’s great.


What does acting from the bottom-up with the strength of the pack mean?

For me it means shouting from the Epsilon Theory megaphone – a megaphone powered by my pack – that we are being lied to about Covid-19 and betrayed by our political leaders.

See, I’m not a lockdown guy. At all. I believe that we’re all smart enough to make up our own minds about the risks that Covid-19 poses for ourselves and our families, commensurate with our own personal conception of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness AND our absolute obligation to respect those same rights in others.

I also believe that our government has intentionally obscured and misrepresented crucial information about Covid-19 that is necessary for an informed, personal risk-taking decision.

I also believe that that our government has abdicated and abused its irreplaceable role in providing resources and coordination to resolve inevitable conflicts of individual rights.

For me it also means distributing N95 and KN95 masks – a distribution powered by my pack – to thousands of individual healthcare workers and first responders in urgent need of PPE.

To date we’ve purchased and distributed about 110,000 N95 and KN95 masks to more than 1,000 individual hospitals, clinics, fire depts, police depts, prisons and shelters across 46 states. We send these masks in packages of 50 to 200 directly to doctors, nurses, EMTs, officers and social workers in urgent need, who then distribute them to their teams.

We don’t compete with federal or state authorities in their big bulk orders of PPE. But we’re also not waiting on these federal or state authorities to trickle those bulk orders down to the frontlines. Because somehow they never do.

If you are a healthcare worker or first responder in urgent need of PPE (or if you know someone who is!) fill out the online form here – Getting PPE to Healthcare Workers and First Responders – and we will do what we can to help!

Please understand that our efforts really are for those in urgent need. Please don’t game the system. Please don’t approach this with a “hey, can I get some free masks?” attitude. Yes, this happens. No, this doesn’t work.

So let me tell you a story about my pack and these masks. You may notice that I’m no longer publishing a website address where you can go and donate money to this cause. The website is still up – www.FrontlineHeroesUSA.org – but there’s no donation link. You know why? Because the pack was so generous in their donations that we’ve got all the money we need right now.

One day we may need to raise more money. That will be a sad day, because it will mean that this plague is still with us long after it should be eradicated and long after this charity should have been wound down. But if that day ever comes, the pack will hear the call and the pack will answer.

The pack always answers the call.


What does acting from the bottom-up with the strength of the pack mean to you?

I don’t know. But you do.

You know what you can do. You know the needs of your community. You know who your pack is. And if you don’t … well, maybe you should put some thought into that. The culture-porn can wait. Twitter and Facebook and all that, it’ll still be there when you get back.

I’ll tell you this, though. Every school in this country is going to need a lot of help over the next few weeks and months. This isn’t a statement about reopening or not. This isn’t a statement about the politics of reopening or the benefits of reopening or the dangers of reopening or the wisdom of reopening or the idiocy of reopening. This is a statement about need.

Whatever your views are on school reopening … however angry you get with the parents and politicians who are on the other side of this issue … you could do worse than to organize your pack and figure out how to help the human beings in your community – parents, students and teachers alike – who are going to have a hard time with the schools this fall under any circumstances. Maybe you’ll figure out a way to help with the economic risks they will face. Maybe you’ll figure out a way to help with the health risks they will face.

But I bet you’ll find a way to help.

Once you start to see the parents, students and teachers in your community as something more than abstract placeholders for the political arguments they (or you!) may be immersed in … once you start to see them as fellow Americans stuck in this foxhole with you … everything changes.

And that change is even more contagious than the virus.

We’re going to change the world, you know … you and me.


PS. If you’re interested in joining the Epsilon Theory pack, we’d love to have you.


Epsilon Theory PDF Download (available to everyone): We the People? We the Pack.


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The Anti-Anarchist Cookbook

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Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required): The Anti-Anarchist Cookbook



Back when I was in 9th grade – so this would have been 1978 – the older brother of a friend of mine had a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. I remember the thrill I had just holding it. Such forbidden fruit! I only had a chance to flip through it then, but clearly this was the stuff of legend. This was the stuff of dangerous and powerful men.

I found a copy many years later, when I was in grad school. Of course I bought it. I took it back to my apartment, so excited to read this masterpiece at leisure, on my own.

LOL. What a let-down. Here I was expecting the most insanely great revolution-porn of all time, and it was like a Playboy from the 1950s. THIS is what got so many people like 14-year-old me so hot and bothered?

Look, there’s no doubt that The Anarchist Cookbook is pornography.

Meaning it’s got lots of pictures, it’s enormously attractive even in concept to adolescent boys, it’s stimulative rather than informative, and it’s mostly harmless but not completely harmless to consume. Certainly its production is part of a decidedly harmful and terrible subculture, and if you want to make the argument that consuming porn aids and abets that harmful and terrible subculture, I’ll listen. Yes, I know the William Powell story and I know the documentary, American Anarchist.

But if you think that The Anarchist Cookbook is anywhere near as pornographic or contributory to a harmful and terrible subculture as Recoil magazine, which you can find at every Barnes & Noble in the country, then you just aren’t paying attention.

I thought about The Anarchist Cookbook and Recoil magazine when I saw this now infamous picture of the St. Louis personal injury lawyers defending their Italian palazzo. I’m not going to discuss this case, because no one reading this note will be able to get past that discussion. Many readers will not even be able to get past this picture. We are all highly stimulated by this picture. That’s because it’s quality amateur porn. Nowhere near the production values of a cover of Recoil magazine, but in the tradition of quality amateur porn everywhere, the actors more than make up for that with their enthusiasm for the roles.

If I were a betting man – and I am – I’d be prepared to wager a large sum that the McCloskeys do not own a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. In fact, if they’re aware of it at all, I’m sure they believe it’s a learners’ manual for Commies and traitors. I’d also be prepared to wager a large sum that the McCloskeys own several issues of Recoil or its ilk, and they believe it’s a wonderful resource for freedom-loving American patriots like themselves.

That’s an even more poignant observation when you consider this. I only remember one line from The Anarchist Cookbook (and for all I know I am misremembering … porn memories are less trustworthy than real world memories). But paraphrasing, it goes like this:


Never point a gun at someone unless you’re ready to shoot them.

Never shoot at someone unless you’re ready to kill them.


NARRATOR: The McCloskeys were not ready.

It’s a good lesson, right? I mean, yes, The Anarchist Cookbook is incredibly boring as far as violence-porn goes. But there’s an authenticity and a realness to The Anarchist Cookbook – frankly, just like there’s an authenticity and a realness to those Playboy issues from the 1950s – that is utterly nonexistent in today’s slick productions of culture-porn and politics-porn like Recoil. Or HuffPo. Or OANN. Or CNN. Or Fox.

And in exactly the same way that your real world sex life will be completely messed up if all you know about sex is what you get from watching Pornhub, so will your attitudes about real world citizenship be completely messed up if all you know about politics and culture is what you get from Recoil. Or HuffPo. Or OANN. Or CNN. Or Fox.

I think that’s what happened to the McCloskeys. I think they got so addicted to the culture-porn and politics-porn of whatever their media sources might be, that they actually believed that the right way to “protect themselves” was to buy military weaponry that they have ZERO idea how to use and then brandish that weaponry in a way that makes the situation MORE dangerous to others AND themselves.

But it’s not just the McCloskeys, of course. It’s all of us. We’re all so immersed in the culture-porn and politics-porn that inundates our dopamine-based economy that half of us believe that the United States is a racist Nazi hellscape and the other half believes that the United States is literally burning as Maoist mobs run amok.

Yep, we’re all porn addicts now.

And social media platforms are our pornographers.

Jack Dorsey and Twitter are today’s Hugh Hefner and Playboy. It’s 90% culture-porn and politics-porn, intentionally toned-down just a wee bit, with 10% non-porn material as a beard … you know, like the interviews were for Playboy.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, though … man, they’re today’s Larry Flynt and Hustler, all hardcore culture and politics-porn all the time.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Or maybe there is.

Maybe it’s not such a great thing that we’re a nation of porn addicts. Maybe it’s not such a great thing that our most powerful media companies are pornographers. Maybe it’s not such a great thing that our President is a gifted political porn star, and that his electoral opponent is … a less-gifted political porn star.

The answer is not to ban culture and politics pornography. I know that because government-led banning (even chilling) of cultural and political speech, no matter how pornographic, IS ITSELF a form of cultural and political pornography. It is, in fact, THE WORST form of cultural and political pornography, because it is, in fact, the means of production of the (truly) fascist state. The answer is not to limit political speech.

No, the answer is to speak politics better.

The answer is to be more attractive than the porn stars. The answer is to be sexy without being pornographic. The answer is to be authentic and real and human and smart. The answer is to choose your words about culture or politics – to construct your narrative about culture or politics – in a way that is not just stimulative for stimulation’s sake, but stimulative and informative and authentic.

That’s what the rest of this note is about. A specific example of a shift in language and narrative that I think can make a real difference in reducing the culture and politics-porn that is killing our world AND help create actual policy change that yes – burns the existing system down – to replace it with something better.

The first chapter – the first of many, I hope – in The Anti-Anarchist Cookbook.

Police reform is only a start …


Defund the police? No.

Demilitarize and Deunionize? Yes.


The problem with “Defund the police” is not one of policy, but of narrative.

I know that neither the proponents nor the opponents of “Defund the police” will agree with me. Both will say it’s ALL about the policy, either the necessity of the policy (proponents) or the horrors of the policy (opponents). If you’re on the left, you will probably be frustrated with me for saying that “Defund the police” is no longer about policy — no, no, Ben, you just don’t understand. And if you’re on the right, you will probably be angry with me for saying this — no, no, Ben, you just don’t see.

What I understand is how culture-porn works. What I see is its success.

In this case it’s a matter of political entrepreneurs on the right taking the word “defund” and associating it with cardiovascular and hormonal-stimulative images and short phrases (n-grams in the narrative science lingo, engrams in the neuropsychology lingo, memes in the popular lingo) in order to produce the desired behavioral reaction in their followers.

For example, here’s the image Breitbart ran in connection with its “news” article Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Supports ‘Defund the Police’ Movement.

Everything about this, from the insertion of AOC’s name in the headline to the tagging of the image (“far-left-rioters-640×480”), is designed for effective search engine optimization (SEO) and social media distribution to a very specific audience. It’s exactly like a porn site, but designed to stimulate stress hormones rather than pleasure hormones. You can find a hundred examples just like this with even a cursory narrative search of the word “defund”, all with very high production values, in media sources like Breitbart, OANN and Fox. It’s quality porn.

And lest my culture porn-addicted friends on the right think I’m picking on them, I’ve got a million zillion examples of equally high production value culture-porn from CNN and Huffpo and MSNBC and all the rest, mostly of the “Republicans pounce” genre (the missionary position of left-leaning culture-porn production). Increasingly though, as cancel culture marches on, the culture-porn of left-leaning media is of the “every public figure is a Nazi racist” genre, which is – and I mean this seriously – the most liberty-destroying and human rights-damaging political development of my lifetime.

Culture-porn addiction is absolutely a both-sides thing, and it boils down to this: if you spend a significant amount of time on social media, regardless of your political affiliation or lack thereof, you are addicted to culture-porn.

I say this in the clinical sense of the word. This is biology, not ethics. I say this as an addict myself.

The result? Once your narrative has been captured by the culture-porn machine (and that’s exactly what it is … a profit-making, power-accumulating machine) you can no longer “explain” to people what your narrative or slogan “really” means.

Why? Because you are no longer fighting ignorance or apathy, you are fighting neural brain chemicals. You are fighting dopamine and cortisol and noradrenaline. You will lose that fight every time.

Willie Brown, maybe the greatest natural politician of the past 50 years, understood this.

Every minute you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Willie Brown, San Francisco mayor 1996 – 2004, godfather of modern California politics

If you don’t know Willie Brown’s story, do yourself a favor and look it up. He’s Alexander Hamilton-esque, just in a different day and age. You could definitely put together a musical here.

Does “Defund” mean “Disband”? Of course not. But every resource spent explaining that “defund” means a reallocation of resources into community policing and policies that can improve the public safety of ALL Americans is a wasted effort. Worse, it’s actually counterproductive. As Willie Brown said, your act of explanation makes you lose more, as it forces people to engage with the highly stimulative culture-porn that you are earnestly explaining about. “Defund the police” has been captured by the culture-porn machine, and there’s no coming back from that.

If you believe in the goals of this policy initiative – as I do – that’s a sad thing. But the proper response to this sad thing is not to mope. It’s certainly not to make the sad thing even sadder by continuing to fight a lost narrative cause.

No, the proper response is to be more attractive than the porn star. The proper response is to speak politics better, using a narrative that is still sexy (i.e., stimulative) but is also authentic and real enough to be culture porn-resistant. Not culture porn-immune. Nothing is culture porn-immune. But culture porn-resistant … a narrative framing that can be successfully advanced by political entrepreneurs of the CENTER.

Imagine that.


Defund the police? No.

Demilitarize and Deunionize? Yes.


The words “demilitarize” and “deunionize” are stimulative, culture-porn resistant, and authentically descriptive of the real world policy changes that structural police reform requires.

By stimulative, I mean it is possible to create a set of specific images and texts around “Demilitarize and Deunionize” that trigger many of the same brain chemical reactions as culture-porn.

By culture-porn resistant, I mean it is difficult for either the politically entrepreneurial left or the politically entrepreneurial right to create an oppositional set of specific images and texts around “Demilitarize and Deunionize”.

By authentically descriptive of real world policy changes, I mean that “Demilitarize and Deunionize” is contextually accurate and an authentic representation of the policy position I am advocating. Put more bluntly, I mean that “Demilitarize and Deunionize” is not culture-porn itself.

That last one is probably the most important, and it’s my biggest problem with the “Defund” argument. I don’t want to defund the police. In and of itself, that is not my policy reform goal. Frankly, I’m prepared to give the police MORE money in terms of salary and training and personnel if I can accomplish my policy reform goals, which are, in fact, to demilitarize and deunionize the police.

Asking these three questions of any narrative – is it effective on a brain chemical level? is it resilient against narrative counterattack? is it authentic to what you truly believe? – is the right framework to achieve lasting policy success in a modern age of ubiquitous social media and culture-porn addiction.

Let’s look at each of these questions in turn for the narrative I’m proposing for structural police reform: “Demilitarize and Deunionize”.


Is “Demilitarize” stimulative?

LOL, the stories write themselves. Here’s a picture of the 14-ton armored personnel carrier that the Los Angeles school district police acquired in 2014 from the US government’s “1033 Program” – a 20-year-old initiative to distribute military equipment to policing authorities. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. This is the public school police, prepared to navigate whatever literal minefields might get in their way as they storm the potential terrorist bastion of PS 33.

Oh yeah, they also got grenade launchers.

This particular story is six years old, an evergreen because … c’mon, school police and armored personnel carriers. Give me a day, though, and I could write 100 more stories just like it. Every police department in the country has been flooded with expensive military toys like this, and it’s child’s play to write a sexy story arc about that.

Is “Demilitarize” culture-porn resistant?

I think so. But like I said, nothing is culture-porn immune.

The potential culture-porn treatment of police demilitarization is to get some imagery of armed-to-the-teeth criminals murdering a brigade of unarmed patrolmen, and then to equate “demilitarize” with “disarm”.

For example, here’s a shot from the 1995 movie “Heat”, with Robert De Niro mowing down about a dozen cops. If you were able to get something like that from the real world, it would play. Of course, De Niro is white, so you really don’t get the culture-porn money shot here, but I could see the usual media suspects taking some images from, say, a drug cartel’s assault on a Mexican police deployment and trying to use that. It’s possible, but I think it’s a stretch.

Is “Demilitarize” an authentic representation of my policy goals?

Yes, absolutely.

And let me start by addressing that possible culture-porn counter-narrative that I just mentioned, that Demilitarize = Disarm. Every big city should have a SWAT team. Every big city should have a unit capable of handling anything that criminals can bring to bear. And they do. SWAT has been part of every big city’s police organization for almost 50 years. Hell, I’m old enough to remember the original S.W.A.T. on TV, from 1975. It’s impossible to remove this core militarized unit from a large police organization, and even if you could, I don’t think you should.

I’m all for keeping a militarized unit in a police organization.

What I want to eliminate is a militarized police force.

Why? Because militarization is the antithesis of community policing. Because militarization is not just a matter of equipment and firepower, but more crucially a matter of attitude and training. Because militarization creates distance between police officers and the citizens they are sworn to serve, destroying the empathy that should exist from the police to civilians, and the empathy that should flow back in return.

If you tell yourself that you are an occupying army, if you use the language of an occupying army to describe your tactics and your goals in your own internal conversations, then you WILL become that occupying army. And you will be treated as one.

Narratives always matter, but they matter most in the narratives we tell ourselves.

Ubiquitous military hardware is the scaffolding for that language, for that internal narrative that police officers tell themselves. Take away the ubiquitous military hardware. Take away that scaffolding and watch as an old story takes root once again within your police organization, a narrative not of occupying a hostile territory but of defending a grateful community. An old narrative that becomes new again: Protect and Serve.

Imagine that.

One last point here … “Demilitarize” is a specific enough term (far more specific than “Defund”) to describe my policy goals in regards to structural police reform. It is also general enough to describe adjacent policy goals that I also believe should be part of structural police reform, but do not have a stimulative narrative in and of themselves – policy goals like the elimination of civil asset forfeiture.

The seizure of civilian assets without conviction in a court of law – hell, without charges, arrest or trial – is what an occupying army does. Civil asset forfeiture is an affront to every American who gives a damn about liberty or the rule of law, and it goes hand-in-hand with militarization. They came into our police forces together, and they can be eliminated together. This is the power of a strong, winning narrative like “Demilitarize”.


Is “Deunionize” stimulative?

The potential story arcs around police unions are not as visually arresting, but the stimulative effect on brain chemistry is no less.

This is Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Union, shown here discussing his opposition to releasing body camera footage of a fatal police shooting in 2018, and more recently in the news for his denunciation of the firing (not the arrest … the firing) of the four police officers who killed George Floyd. As the New York Times notes, “Mr. Kroll is himself the subject of at least 29 complaints”, including, as the Wall Street Journal notes, at least 10 complaints of excessive use of force, a letter of reprimand for using police resources to harass an ex-girlfriend, and a settlement paid to five Black police officers who, as part of a hostile work environment suit, said that Kroll wore a “white power” badge on his leather motorcycle jacket.

This is Pat Lynch, president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, shown here in 2019 denouncing a judge’s decision to recommend the firing of the police officer who killed Eric Garner in 2014 with a chokehold. Lynch railed at the “trampling” of the officer’s “due process rights” (again, this firing recommendation is happening five YEARS after Garner’s death), noting that while the death was painful for Garner’s family, the police officers involved have also “suffered”.

Is it Kroll’s and Lynch’s job to take unpopular public positions like this? Yes, to an extent. But only to an extent. No one forced these guys to make a zealous public defense of the indefensible. They sought it out. There’s a difference between filing a labor grievance behind the scenes and an impassioned public defense of killers and abusers, and it is in that difference where brain chemistry stimulation exists.

As with “Demilitarize”, there are literally hundreds of stories like this across America, stories that write themselves when guys like Kroll and Lynch indict themselves with their own language.

Is “Deunionize” culture-porn resistant?

Very.

In fact, I don’t think that the politically entrepreneurial right can touch this at all, as they’ve already made a cottage culture-porn industry out of attacking labor and unions. Again, nothing is culture-porn immune, but I have no idea what the “police unions are great” story arc would be from the right, especially since the other giant public sector union – teachers unions – is the Great White Whale of many an Ahab on the politically entrepreneurial right.

It’s the politically entrepreneurial left that is more likely to gnash their teeth about “Deunionize”, again because of its adjacency to teachers unions, but again I have no idea what the “police unions are great” story arc would be here. All you’ve got are slippery slope arguments – which are about as sexy as a treatise on mold spores – and “it’ll get held up in the courts” arguments – which are even less stimulative, if that’s imaginable.

Is “Deunionize” an authentic representation of my policy goals?

Yes, absolutely.

See, I don’t think that police unions are labor unions at all. I think they’re guilds. I think that the police guild in almost every American city and town has smartly adopted the language of labor unions and collective bargaining to create a narrative shield that is as false as it is powerful.

The reality is that a police force does not exist in the world of Labor vs. Capital that contains true labor unions. The reality is that a police force is a self-regulating organization that is hired by the citizens of a city or town, and paid for by the pooled resources of those citizens, in exactly the same way that citizens used to hire a mason’s guild to build a city wall. This isn’t collective bargaining. It’s just bargaining.

To be clear, I’m perfectly fine with the police in a town or city forming a guild and doing their guild thing, which at its core is to maintain a local monopoly in who can and can’t call themselves “police” in exchange for a reasonably good quality-of-service in that local jurisdiction. I think that policing is one of those rare common goods that lends itself extremely well to citizens granting that local monopoly.

But you’re not a labor union.

And you don’t get to shield your self-interested guild practices – like protecting the jobs of guild members who have betrayed the citizens they swore an oath to serve – with labor law.

By the way – and this is a direct response to those who say it will take 20 years to fight this in the courts – you know what it takes for all of these local police guilds to be stripped of their legal status as unions? A federal law. I know that sounds crazy in this day and age where everyone in the House and Senate is a wannabe culture-porn star, far more interested in that bon mot tweet than actually, you know, being a legislator.

And on that note of meaningful police reform legislation …

Just as “Demilitarize” is both specific enough to be representative of its direct reform goals and general enough to incorporate adjacent reform goals, so is “Deunionize”. For “Deunionize”, that adjacent goal is the elimination of qualified immunity status for police officers.

What’s the connection? Both unions and qualified immunity status provide legal protections for police from the rightful claims and just redress of the citizens they swear an oath to protect. Like civil asset forfeiture, qualified immunity status is an affront to every American who gives a damn about liberty or the rule of law. Like police unions, qualified immunity status can be undone with a single piece of federal legislation. At least Justin Amash is trying. But it’s not working because he put the cart before the horse.

First comes the winning narrative that creates a deep reservoir of popular support for meaningful policy reform from the bottom-up. THEN comes the legislation from the top-down.

That’s the process. That’s how we change the world.

The weapons of The Anti-Anarchist Cookbook are not guns and explosives. They’re words.

Throughout human history, narrative has been used against us by high-functioning sociopaths as they turn us into fodder and feed. Narrative has been used to excuse the inexcusable, to preserve a status quo that subverts our inalienable rights even as it pretends to defend them.

Enough.

It’s time to turn the tables. It’s time to use our understanding of the Narrative Machine to subvert the sociopaths and their smiley-face authoritarian system of crony capitalism and trickle-down democracy. It’s time to create counter-narratives in service to liberty and justice for ALL.

Imagine that.

We’re going to change the world, you know … you and me.


Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required): The Anti-Anarchist Cookbook


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Sideways: Observations on Pain and Privilege

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scenes from Whiplash (2014)

No doubt you’ve seen a movie or TV show where a sudden cataclysmic t-bone car crash happens without warning. It’s a really effective way to shock the audience, kind of a horror film technique applied to regular dramatic scripts, and it’s become so common that it’s now a trope. I think it’s so effective because we’ve all experienced a situation where something hits us with a WHAM! … totally out of the blue, physically or emotionally … and our lives suddenly go sideways.

Sometimes that WHAM! hits us collectively. Covid-19 is just that sort of shock, a global car crash that has turned billions of lives sideways. Sometimes that WHAM! hits us individually.

A little more than two weeks ago I wrote this note about a personal healthcare issue I was having.


No Country For Old Men

We all know someone who is in urgent-but-not-emergency need of some medical procedure that can’t be scheduled while Covid-19 is storming the hospital ramparts. I’m one of them.   … Continue reading



My healthcare issue – varicose veins in my ass, commonly known as hemorrhoids – wasn’t life-threatening. Neither was the complication I developed three weeks ago – an anal fissure. Now there are two words you never expected to read in an Epsilon Theory note! Certainly I never expected to write them. It’s a brutal term, right? Sounds awful. I promise you, though, the reality is worse. The pain is … otherworldly. The pain is … transcendent. But again, not life-threatening. This isn’t a sideways moment.

So Friday morning a week ago, I had a hemorrhoidectomy where the internal varicose veins were removed and the anal fissure was repaired. The surgery went well. I was sent home, prepared for the long (and painful) recovery ahead.

And then that evening my bladder stopped working.

And my life went sideways.

I have two observations from that sideways Friday night, one about pain and one about privilege. Pain first.

I thought I knew pain. I thought I knew the limits of pain. But in the ER that Friday night, in the course of several … ummm … poorly executed catheterizations, I discovered that I knew nothing about the limits of pain. I discovered *chef’s kiss* pain that night, and I’ll never be the same.

So obviously I’m better now, nine days later. I can pee and poop on my own, which unless you’ve ever had the experience of NOT being able to pee or poop on your own, I don’t think you can fully appreciate. Certainly I couldn’t have. Is there still pain? Of course, but it’s an entirely different kind of pain, an understandable pain that has an established beginning, middle and end. What I experienced over the weeks before the surgery and especially in the ER visits was pain beyond understanding. And that’s what left a scar.

They say that pain is a teacher. This is a lie, at least when it comes to pain beyond understanding. I suppose understandable pain could be used as a correction, as part of a causal learning process. Pain beyond understanding, though … pain beyond understanding teaches you nothing.

They also say that pain and pleasure are opposites. This is also a lie, again when it comes to pain beyond understanding. Pain beyond understanding is its own thing, sui generis to use a ten-dollar phrase. It becomes your entire world when it hits. It is All. Pain beyond understanding is a jealous god. It is your jealous god, and you will give yourself over to It. I’ve heard people talk about religious conversions in this language, in the sense of being brought low and placing themselves in the hands of a higher power. For me it was a lower power. In the early morning hours that Saturday in the ER, I capitulated. I gave myself over to the jealous god of pain beyond understanding and whatever mercy the ER staff would bestow.

I am 56 years old. But I had never felt old. I had never thought of myself as old. I had never felt … fragile … until I experienced pain beyond understanding. And not just a physical fragility. No, the physical fragility is something that I can bring into understanding. It’s something that I can work on; something that I know how to improve on. It’s the emotional fragility that I feel far more keenly than the physical fragility, because even as the pain and the physical fragility subsides, the emotional fragility remains strong.

And I don’t know how to fix it.

Experiencing pain beyond understanding has not inured me to pain, it has sensitized me to pain. I am constantly checking in with my body for any signs of pain. I am more aware of pain and reactive to pain – no matter how slight, no matter if it’s physical or emotional – than I have ever been. I don’t like this pain-sensitized person, this Neb Tnuh. Neb is self-absorbed. Neb still hears his jealous god whispering in his ear, tickling him with an ache here and a prick there. Neb is distracted, at a time in his life and his family’s lives when concentration and focus have never been more important.

I think there are a lot of people in this world who, at one time or another, have experienced pain beyond understanding and so endure this emotional fragility that I’m describing. I think that on a collective level, we are ALL suffering from an emotional fragility brought on by the pain beyond understanding caused by Covid-19 and its physical and economic repercussions.

And we don’t know how to fix it.

I’m equally stuck on a fix for my second observation from the night when my life went sideways. This observation isn’t about pain. It’s about privilege. I know that’s a terribly overused word, and I tend to cringe whenever I hear it. But in this case it’s exactly the right word. It’s the only word.

I believe that if I were black or poor, much less black and poor, there was a non-trivial chance that I would have died last weekend. I know that sounds melodramatic. But it’s really not.

The privilege of class that I’m talking about is not that I’m able to afford a decent health insurance plan, that I don’t have to worry about whether or not I can go to the ER when my bladder stops working. That’s a very real thing and a very real privilege, but it’s not what I’m writing about here.

The privilege of race that I’m talking about is not that I got better facilities or more effective therapies from the nurses and the attending doc in the ER that night. Nope, they were entirely equal opportunity in their maddening mix of mostly nonchalance and occasional attention, in their absolute refusal to consider this a complication from that morning’s surgery (which would have pushed all sorts of liability red buttons), and in their determination to get me out of the hospital as soon as humanly possible, even if that meant returning to the ER for a new admission every four to six hours until I could see a urologist. On Monday. I’m not making this up.

No, the privilege of being a well-to-do white guy in a Connecticut hospital ER at 1 AM on a Saturday morning is that I was able to advocate for my own survival to the (mostly) white nurses and the (exclusively) white doctors, and they would actually listen to me. I was able to speak with the attending docs as their peer (or as much of a peer as an ER doc sees anyone). I was able to speak with the nurses and all the clerical representatives of the insane bureaucracy that is a modern medical facility as a person of authority. I was able to advocate successfully for an additional three hours in the ER and another set of tests, which I know doesn’t sound like much, but which I promise you was everything.

The privilege of being a well-to-do white guy in a Connecticut hospital ER at 1 AM on a Saturday morning is that everyone recognized that there would be consequences if my sideways moment got any worse. It would be annoying and possibly dangerous to their position if I had an “adverse outcome”, plus I spoke in a language and from a position of authority that was comfortable to them, that everyone was accustomed to responding to. None of that would move mountains. None of that would get me admitted to the hospital. But it was sufficient on the margin for me to get the time and the additional tests that I advocated for. And that made ALL the difference.

One of the first lessons I learned as an investor is that markets happen on the margins.

So does life.

That’s what a sideways moment IS … a point in time where your very life becomes a probabilistic exercise, where you are well and truly at the mercy of one of two merciless social institutions: hospitals or the police. Each is an insane bureaucracy designed to deny exceptions to the rule, designed to grind everyone equally beneath its wheels, designed to eliminate marginal considerations.

One day, your life or the life of someone you love will go sideways, and the outcome of that sideways moment will depend on a stranger in one of these two massive institutions – healthcare or public safety – treating you differently on the margin. In my sideways moment last Friday night, I got that marginal difference in treatment, and you’ll never convince me that my race and class weren’t the edge in winning that marginal difference. That’s privilege.

We should all have that privilege – the privilege of advocacy, the privilege of mercy, the privilege of empathy – and it’s my life’s work to see that we do.


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Another Brick in the Wall

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Three brief observations today, all of which deserve more thought and a longer note. Would be delighted to hear any of your ideas on these topics, as we figure all this out together.

One – and the titular subject of today’s note – the Fed’s expansion of their corporate bond buying SPV makes credit default swaps (CDS) useless as a portfolio hedging instrument. Here are the 1-year and 5-year US investment grade (IG) CDS index charts.

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If you need a refresher course in how to read or understand CDS spreads, check out the ET Pro CDS primer: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About CDS … But Were Afraid to Ask. The point here is that with direct Fed intervention to prop up IG corporate credit (and HY, too, through junk bond ETF and “fallen angel” purchases), credit default swaps are no longer effective hedging instruments. You can’t fight City Hall and you can’t fight the Fed, and that means that our long/short investment quiver just lost a bunch of its best arrows.

Sigh. It’s not depressing so much as it is sad. It’s just another brick in the wall of the transformation of capital markets into a political utility. That’s a mixed metaphor, but you get what I mean. Seriously, it’s just sad.


Two – and this is the biggest thematic macro idea I’ve got – everyone is underestimating the degree to which the EU and Japan and China got their Covid-19 response right, and the US and the ROW got their Covid-19 response wrong. Take a look at Covid-19 stats over the past three weeks … ubiquitous testing + contact tracing works, and the EU proves it. The upshot is that the EU in particular is going to have a much more vibrant internal market economy than the US for the next 18 months … maybe much longer than that. So long as Covid-19 remains endemic and uncontrolled in the US – and there is nothing to suggest that is going to improve in 2020 – Europe will ‘take share’ from the US in global free trade regime benefits and enjoy a large internal market that looks much like its pre-Covid self.

I have no idea what the right way to play this macro idea would be … weak dollar / strong euro? … long EU banks / short US banks? … I dunno. But for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am more bullish on European growth fundamentals than US growth fundamentals. Honestly, I feel weird and kinda dirty just typing those words. But it’s the truth.


Three – and I have no idea what to do with this, but I think it’s vitally important – there’s a fascinating new Gallup report out on American pride. The skinny: “US National Pride Falls to Record Low”.

You really have to read this to get a feel for the breadth and depth to which Americans’ pride in being American has been pummeled over the past four years in general and the last year in particular. Even among Republicans, fewer are “extremely proud” of being an American than at any point since this poll began 20 years ago.

Just check out this demographic breakdown. The numbers for young Americans (18-29) and nonwhite Americans are heartbreaking.

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Like I say, I don’t know what to do with this … yet. But I think it’s everything.


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No Country for Old Men

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Wendell: You think this boy Moss has got any notion of the sorts of sons of bitches that’re huntin’ him?

Ed Tom Bell: I don’t know, he ought to. He’s seen the same things I’ve seen, and it’s certainly made an impression on me.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

A personal note on Covid-19, healthcare consumption, and  … pain. Three things that have certainly made an impression on me.

For the past five months, ever since I published this note about the biology of the virus and the lies China was publishing about its spread in Wuhan, Covid-19 has been a daily companion.


Body Count

China is fighting nCov2019 exactly like the US fought North Vietnam … with policy driven more by narrative control than by what’s best to win the war. That was a disastrous strategic mistake for the US then, and it’s a disastrous strategic mistake for China today. … Continue reading



My other daily companion has been pain.

I’ve got the genetics for varicose veins, and unfortunately mine manifest themselves in a nerve-rich area of the body – my ass. I have terrible hemorrhoids.

There’s nothing for it except surgery. I’ve tried every non-surgical therapy my doctor can suggest. Ditto Dr. Internet. None of them provide meaningful relief. As for medical intervention short of an __ectomy, banding was successful in the past, but I’m way past that now.

There’s nothing life-threatening about this. It’s not an emergency.

There’s only the pain. Intermittent … excruciating pain.

It’s exactly like having a red-hot poker stuck up your ass. Or so I imagine. Sometimes the pain is so bad that the entire situation becomes incredibly funny to me and I just start laughing.

Opiates scare me to death, plus they have digestive side effects that you really don’t want in my condition. So I “manage” the pain with Advil, ice packs, and traditional central nervous system depressants – tequila, mostly. Cannabis helps a bit. Nothing helps much.

The worst part is not sleeping for more than an hour or two at a time. Hmm. Actually, the worst part is literally blinding pain. Though not sleeping is the most health-damaging part, I suspect. The weirdest part: as I write this, I can feel tissues moving inside my body. Like a worm.

We’ve all got crosses to bear, many a lot worse than mine. This note isn’t for sympathy (although now you know why I’m on Twitter so much – it’s all I can manage much of the time). This note is for what my situation means for healthcare consumption. Because I’m not alone. We all know someone who is in urgent-but-not-emergency need of some medical procedure that can’t be scheduled while Covid-19 is storming the hospital ramparts.

Connecticut is opening up a bit, so I’ve got an outpatient surgery scheduled at the big local hospital (specialty clinics are still closed) next Friday. I feel lucky to get on the calendar so soon. I also feel nervous. My dad was an ER doc. My brother is a healthcare lawyer. Again, these are things that have certainly made an impression on me.

To be clear, my lack of healthcare options today and over the past 3 months isn’t because of the lockdown. That’s how a child would see this.

My lack of healthcare options is because of the virus.

In its acute phase, Covid-19 shuts down non-emergency healthcare provision entirely.

In its endemic phase, Covid-19 forces enormous and costly changes in healthcare provision. There is no “v-shaped recovery” for medicine.

Covid-19 is now in its endemic phase.


Self Assured Destruction

Our leaders have botched the Covid-19 war, and we are defenseless against a now endemic disease. The free world does not easily survive a globally endemic Covid-19. … Continue reading



The enormous and costly changes in healthcare provision that Covid-19 requires and the resulting impact on healthcare consumption lead me to three conclusions about the healthcare industry and national politics.

Conclusion #1: Endemic Covid-19 permanently dents healthcare provision (and consumption). The days of “efficient” (i.e., insanely lucrative) specialty medical clinics where docs go through 3 knee replacements or 10 lasik procedures in an afternoon are GONE.

Conclusion #2: Although both acute and endemic Covid-19 sharply reduce my healthcare options and healthcare consumption, my healthcare insurance costs have not gone down. They’ve gone up. Healthcare payers (insurance cos) are a public utility. They should be regulated as such. #BITFD

Conclusion #3: For the past 30 years, US fiscal policy has been largely driven by Boomers’ insatiable demand for more and more healthcare, to the advantage of both the Dems AND the GOP. Covid-19 destroys that cozy political dynamic, but neither party realizes this yet.


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Misfortune vs. Carelessness

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Ex-acting Labor secretary defends BLS in the wake of jobs report misclassification error (CNN)

In its monthly jobs report released Friday, the BLS showed the US unemployment rate fell to 13.3% in May, as the economy gained 2.5 million jobs.

BLS, however, noted its data collectors — for the third month in a row — misclassified some workers as “employed not at work,” when they should have been classified as “unemployed on temporary layoff.”

Barring that issue, the unemployment rate could have been as high as 19.2% in April and 16.1% in May, not including seasonal adjustments, the BLS said.

“I fear that because this was a fairly serious misclassification that people are going to hatch a bunch of conspiracy theories around it. They shouldn’t do that,” Seth Harris, who served as acting Labor Secretary under President Barack Obama, told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield on Saturday.

“I don’t think the folks at BLS are trying to cook the books or make President Trump look good. They’re career professionals. They take their craft very seriously. They’re trying to do the best they possibly can in a very complicated situation,” he added.

He commended the BLS for being “transparent” about the error, saying it was the “right way to respond.”


LOL.

Back in 2013 – in some of my very first Epsilon Theory notes – I wrote about how unemployment data was chronically misreported during Barack Obama’s first term, with an outrageous bias towards making the employment news flow in the United States look much better in narrative than it was in fact. You can read the original note – Heere Comes Lucky! – or the more in-depth note – The Icarus Moment – for all the gory details, but the skinny is this: for a period of some years in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis, initial unemployment claims were systematically undercounted. Amazingly enough, this systematic misreporting in unemployment data stopped after Obama was re-elected for a second term.

Was this an intentional act of malfeasance and corruption by the Obama-era Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), who at the time weren’t even responsible for collecting the weekly initial unemployment claims data?

Nope.

Did the Obama-era BLS recognize the systematic error and direction of bias in the initial unemployment claims data?

Absolutely.

Could the Obama-era BLS have fixed the systematic error and direction of bias in the initial unemployment claims data if they had wanted to?

In a heartbeat.

It’s exactly the same thing with the Trump-era Bureau of Labor Statistics and the reporting of weekly and monthly employment data. The measurement error we’ve seen in the monthly jobs report – and keep in mind that it is exactly the SAME ERROR being made for the past THREE MONTHS – is not an intentional mistake. But the failure to correct these errors – the conscious effort required to allow known and obvious errors to persist and create a market-moving and election-moving cartoon – well, I think that IS intentional.

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Accidents happen. Misfortune occurs. Mistakes are made. But when the same accident happens over and over again, in exactly the same way and with exactly the same bias …

What’s happening with the Bureau of Labor Statistics – and of course it’s not only the Bureau of Labor Statistics – is an intentional carelessness.

It is an intentional, political carelessness that supports status quo cartoons of control, regardless of which political party happens to be championing the status quo today.

It’s not a Democrat thing and it’s not a Republican thing.

It’s a power thing.

Once you see it for what it is … a power thing, a system thing … you will never see it in the same old partisan ways again. That’s when they start to lose their narrative hold over you. That’s when the world starts to change.

Can you feel it?


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Never Forget

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Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989


With Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Square Vigil Canceled, ‘The Fire Is Flickering’ (Wall Street Journal)

HONG KONG—Most years for the past three decades, the Rev. Youngman Chan has gathered with thousands of others in a Hong Kong park on June 4 to commemorate the students who died in 1989 while demanding democracy in China. …

This year, the vigil has been canceled. Police refused permission, citing a coronavirus-control rule limiting social gatherings to eight people, and threatened anyone who defies the ban with arrest. …

The vigil’s attendance has been a barometer of the city’s political mood, typically swelling in years of particularly unpopular decisions from Beijing. Last year’s crowd exceeded 180,000, organizers said, equaling the record.


For a period of some weeks in 1989, more than 200,000 Chinese citizens gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest the authoritarian and non-representative rule of the Chinese Communist Party. On June 4th, the Deng Xiaoping government ordered the military to clear the square and prevent the crowd from regathering. This military operation was carried out, as Sen. Tom Cotton is advocating for similar measures in the US, with “no quarter”. We’ll never know how many Chinese citizens were killed that day, but secret British diplomatic cables released in 2017 put the number at more than 10,000.

Since that day, the Chinese government has gone to enormous lengths to whitewash any record of that massacre from public consumption. Even today – more than 30 years after the fact – June 4th is colloquially referred to as “Internet maintenance day” on the mainland, and even a passing social media reference to June 4th and its historical meaning will earn you a knock on the door – or much worse – from the Chinese security services.

For the past 30 years, however, June 4th has been commemorated in Hong Kong with vigils and mass remembrances of that tragic day. Last year, more than 180,000 Hong Kong residents gathered together on June 4th to stand witness against the violent tyranny of the Chinese state and its efforts to erase history.

This year, Hong Kong authorities refused permission for the June 4th vigil, and threatened to arrest any crowd that gathered for this purpose.

Next year, under the “national security laws” that Beijing will soon impose on Hong Kong, not only will the congregation of such a crowd be illegal (and simple arrest will be the least of the consequences for any protesters), but also social media or Internet remembrances of the June 4th massacre in Tiananmen Square will be punishable by fine and arrest.

Hong Kong, 1997

Washington DC, 2020

Can a Tiananmen Square massacre happen in the United States?

I doubt it. Although the possibility becomes both real and non-trivial if Tom Cotton and Donald Trump get their way and use the Insurrection Act to “put down” protests with regular US military troops or with paramilitary squads dragooned from federal prisons and the like.

Whatever your views on the validity or lack thereof for the protests themselves, if you don’t think it matters whether Lafayette Park is cleared by DC Police or cleared by these guys, you’re wrong. In fact, for the preservation of liberty and the Constitution of the United States, it’s really the ONLY thing that matters.

Can a Tiananmen Square rewriting of history happen in the United States?

Absolutely. It already is.

And not just in the appropriation of imagery and symbol, like Trump’s misbegotten St. John’s photo-op the other day. That’s trivial. That’s just silly.

No, the REAL rewriting of history is done by both the Democrats AND the Republicans, by both Fox AND CNN. The real rewriting of history is the creation of channeling narratives that tell you how to think about George Floyd and his murder in ways that fit THEIR interests, not yours!

The broad-daylight mass political protests are growing. Some police departments are doing a good job reacting to this. More will.

The dead-of-night mass criminal lootings are shrinking. A few police departments are doing a good job reacting to this. More will.

Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of pissed-off Americans will protest a broken system of political representation and individual justice in cities and towns all across the country. And they won’t break a thing except the complacency and narratives of a corrupt two-party system and its crony capitalist supporters.

This isn’t a threat to democracy. This IS democracy.

Never forget.


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Self Assured Destruction

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Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required): Self Assured Destruction


In the 1960s, our Cold War strategy evolved into Mutual Assured Destruction, a dangerous but stable relationship with the Soviet Union.


In 2020, our Covid-19 War strategy devolved into Self Assured Destruction, a dangerous and utterly unstable relationship with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.


As the story goes, a few weeks after JFK was inaugurated in January 1961, his new Secretary of Defense – Robert McNamara – was briefed by the head of Strategic Air Command on US nuclear warfare strategy. Under the “Massive Retaliation” doctrine of the day, there were two options: go and no-go. Any provocation by the Soviet Union sufficient to trigger a go action would result in the immediate launch of all US nuclear warheads – about 1,500 at the time – against 650 targets, mostly in the Soviet Union, but also anywhere in the world where SAC thought the Russians had military assets. As McNamara remembered General Power (yes, that was his real name) telling him, “I sure hope you don’t have any relatives in Albania, Mr. Secretary, because we’re going to have to wipe them off the face of the earth, too.”

At the end of the presentation, the oh-so-pleased-with-themselves generals asked McNamara what he thought. His angry response:

You don’t have a war strategy. You have a war spasm.

Same thing today.

We don’t have a Covid-19 strategy. We have a Covid-19 spasm.

We launched all of our warheads against ourselves in a massive overkill of a lockdown, where our domestic equivalent of a noncombatant Albania was hit just as hard as our domestic equivalent of a Soviet missile base, and now we’re done. Our arsenal is gone. There will never be another coordinated national effort to control the spread of Covid-19. Not with this President, at least.

But that’s the problem with spasmatic policy and the blowhard leaders who administer it. You end up with neither a war-preventing strategy nor a war-fighting strategy. You end up neither containing the enemy nor defeating the enemy.

First, you ignore the initial small provocations and the warning signs of trouble because you’re not prepared with actions you can take short of all-out war. At first you minimize and you excuse.

Sound familiar?

Then, when you finally respond, you act in an incredibly heavy-handed, all-or-nothing fashion that inflicts maximum damage on both the true war-fighting targets AND targets that have nothing to do with the fight at hand.

Sound familiar?

Finally, if your spasmatic attack fails to wipe out the enemy – if the enemy retains an offensive attack capacity after your all-or-nothing effort – then your population is held hostage by the enemy’s threat. You have no choice but to surrender and hope for a merciful/lucky outcome.

Sound familiar?

Our leaders have botched this war, and we are defenseless against a still potent and now endemic enemy, left only with the deus ex machina hope of a truly effective vaccine.

Here, let me say that again.

Covid-19 is now endemic in the United States.

That means it is everywhere. That means it is something to live with rather than something to eliminate. That means Covid-19 is now being “handled” as a chronic disease rather than an acute infectious emergency, a chronic disease where – every day while it remains endemic – 15,000 to 20,000 Americans will get so miserably sick that they will seek treatment and be officially diagnosed, and 500 to 1,000 Americans will die.

15,000 to 20,000 Americans really sick. 500 to 1,000 Americans dead.

Every day.

By the way, these numbers would be a significant improvement over the numbers today. Over the past two weeks, the United States has averaged 22,089 newly diagnosed cases of Covid-19 and 1,118 deaths per day, even as cases and deaths from New York have dropped more than 80% from their peak (New York now adds about 1,200 new cases and 100 deaths per day). Frankly, I think 15,000 to 20,000 Americans officially sick and 500 to 1,000 Americans officially dead every day is a pretty optimistic scenario for an endemic Covid-19 in the months ahead.

Other countries, allies even, countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Germany, have waged their war against the virus much more effectively than the United States, so that a nationally coordinated policy of testing and contact tracing to manage an endemic virus without suffering ruinous daily casualties is at least possible.

We don’t have that possibility. We have botched this war so miserably that the only solution to an endemic Covid-19 available to the United States is a vaccine. Other systemically crucial countries, like Russia, Brazil and India, are in exactly the same boat. We’ve all followed a strategy of Self Assured Destruction.

And so we wait. We wait to see if we get an effective vaccine by the end of the year. If we do, then maybe we win the war, despite our absurd strategy and incompetent leadership. Maybe. If we don’t, then we lose.

By win, I’m not saying that our markets or our politics go back to “normal”, whatever that means. I’m saying that our markets and our politics can survive if there’s a viable vaccine developed in the next six months. I’m saying that the “bridge loan” narrative driving trillions of dollars in economic support for corporations and some measly fraction of that for unemployed workers can only work if there is a similarly-functioning domestic economy on the other side of this bridge.

But if it’s a bridge to nowhere …

If there’s no vaccine in the near future …

If Covid-19 persists as an endemic disease where 15,000 to 20,000 Americans get really sick and 500 to 1,000 Americans die every freakin’ day for a couple of freakin’ years, and where the situation is worse – MUCH worse – in countries like Brazil and Russia and India and Indonesia and Iran and Egypt and Mexico …

The free world does not easily survive a globally endemic Covid-19.


[first lines]

Newsreader:    Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle.

Newsreader:    The Muslim community demands an end to the Army’s occupation of mosques.

Newsreader:    The Homeland Security bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue. Good morning.

— Children of Men (2006)

After the global flu pandemic of 2008, mankind loses its ability to conceive children, and the world begins a long, gradual descent into anarchy and despair. By 2027, Britain is the one civilized nation remaining, although it has transformed itself into a brutal police state to manage not just a fin de siècle, but a fin to … humanity.


That’s the premise of Children of Men, a great book by PD James and an even better movie by Alfonso Cuaron. It’s a premise that’s ringing pretty loud in my ears right now.

And I don’t know how to make the ringing stop.

See, I’ve been writing this note for the better part of a month now, unwilling to take my thoughts to their logical conclusion. And maybe we WILL get lucky. Maybe we WILL develop a truly effective vaccine in the next few months. I really do have faith in our technological prowess. Because I have to.

But here’s the problem with that faith. Whether or not there really is an effective vaccine, we will be TOLD that there is an effective vaccine. Our government policies and our personal behaviors will go forward over the next year AS IF there is an effective vaccine. The overwhelming narrative from both Wall Street and Washington will always be that an effective vaccine is “in advanced tests” or “showing great promise” or “ramping up production” or “available now for emergency personnel”. Maybe this will be true. God, I hope it will be true. But we won’t KNOW if it’s true … we won’t KNOW if there’s an effective vaccine for billions of human beings … until, what, Q3 of 2021?

If it’s NOT true, if there is not in fact a vaccine that can eliminate Covid-19 as a globally endemic illness, then I think we’re in a full-bore Children of Men scenario. All capital markets become political utilities in this future. Only national champion corporations remain, and the line between State and Oligarchy becomes nonexistent. Democracy? LOL.

The form of social organization that “works” with 15,000 to 20,000 Americans getting really sick and 500 to 1,000 Americans dying every freakin’ day for a couple of freakin’ years, combined with massive political instability and violence abroad, is national socialism with American characteristics. It’s a fetishization of the State and its provision of order, such that all economic and political behavior is funneled exclusively through the State and its crony capitalist “Yay, military!” and “Yay, stock market!” narratives. It’s smiley-face fascism. And not-so smiley-face fascism.

But even if it IS true, even if there is in fact a vaccine that can eliminate Covid-19 as a globally endemic illness, what happens during the months-long period between the announcement of this effective vaccine and its broad distribution? There will still be 15,000 – 20,000 Americans getting really sick and 500 – 1,000 Americans dying every day from this now preventable disease! What would your political response be if your mother or your husband or your brother died from Covid-19 because your government administered this vaccine to someone else first? There will be tens of thousands of such deaths in the United States, and hundreds of thousands of such deaths around the world. Will you accept a loved one’s death under these circumstances with equanimity, comforted by your faith that the Trump II or Biden I administration did everything possible to distribute this life-saving treatment with justice and fairness to all?

Or will you rage?

Forget about the United States for a minute. Let’s say you live in India. Do you trust the Modi government to administer whatever vaccine stock they acquire with justice and fairness? Will you shrug your shoulders if your town or state is passed over and your brother dies? How do you think the Modi regime will respond to your righteous anger? Will they say “oops, our bad” and make amends?

Or will they find someone to blame?

Now do Brazil. Now do Egypt. Now do Mexico. Now do Indonesia. Now do Iran. Now do Russia. Now do China. Now do the United States.

Maybe these regimes will blame you for their mistakes and unjust actions. Maybe these regimes will blame the Muslims or the Jews or the Uighurs or the communists or the imperialists or the Republicans or the Democrats or the immigrants or the “thugs”. Maybe these regimes will blame China. Maybe these regimes will blame the United States. One thing’s for sure, they won’t be blaming themselves.

I’m having a hard time seeing how we get from here (globally endemic Covid-19, incompetent and/or pseudo-fascist leaders in the most powerful countries on earth) to there (a non-outright burning, non-outright fascist world) even if we get a truly effective vaccine into production by the end of the year.

I’m having a hard time seeing how we get from here to there because I know how incompetent and/or pseudo-fascist leaders ALWAYS respond to this sort of domestic unrest and threat to the maintenance of their incompetent and/or pseudo-fascist regimes.

They start a war.

Not an allegorical “war” against a virus, but a real war against an Other. Sometimes that Other is a group or region inside their country. Sometimes that Other is another country. But it’s ALWAYS a war.

There are two ways to read the title of this note: Self Assured Destruction.

One way is how I led off the piece, as a play on Mutual Assured Destruction, as the consequence of having a war spasm rather than a war strategy, as an assured destruction brought down on yourself.

The other way to read it is as the self-assured destruction that incompetent and/or pseudo-fascist regimes visit upon their human enemies in real war, as they confidently propagandize and violently blame another country or group for their own failings.

The first interpretation is in the past. We can’t change the abysmal way in which our government and so many other governments have waged this “war” against Covid-19. We can’t do anything about that now.

The second interpretation, though, that’s in the future. And yes, we CAN do something about the tragic way in which our government and so many other governments will try to lead us down the path of real-world war.

Back in 1997, I wrote a book called Getting To War, about how all governments – democracies and dictatorships alike, in the 20th century or any other century – attempt to mobilize public opinion before taking on a risky action like starting a war. The book’s long out of print (although you can read big chunks of it on Amazon for free if you’re so inclined), but it’s time to dust off that 30-year old methodology and use the modern technology of the Narrative Machine to identify getting-to-war propaganda in today’s major powers.

Thirty years ago, I had no ability to do this narrative research in real-time, and no megaphone to communicate my findings to the world. Today I’ve got both.

Next up … Part 2 of this note – not Self Assured Destruction, but Self-Assured Destruction – where I’ll walk you through the getting-to-war process that all governments use to create a war-supporting narrative, how we can use the Narrative Machine technology to track this process, and what we can do to jam or subvert those war-supporting narratives. If you haven’t yet read the Epsilon Theory note Inception, now would be a good time to do that.

Act I of the Covid-19 War is over. The high-functioning sociopaths who have used us as fodder and feed for decades were caught unawares by this new enemy, and they thoroughly bungled the response of State and Oligarchy. Now the pleasant skins of “Yay, Democracy!” and “Yay, Capitalism!” – false narratives, not the real thing – have been ripped off to reveal the naked sinews of power beneath.

Act II will be the story of high-functioning sociopaths trying to re-establish their system of control through narratives of Other-blaming and war … and how we beat them at their own narrative game.

As for Act III … we’re going to change the world, you know. You and me.


Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required): Self Assured Destruction


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The PPP Narrative for Asset Managers

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The vast majority of ET Pro subscribers are in the business of managing other people’s money in one form or another, and many of you are key decisionmakers at asset management firms that qualify for forgivable loans from the US government under the SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). So I wanted to use this week’s note to highlight a narrative backlash that I see developing against RIAs and other asset managers that took PPP money.

To be clear, I don’t have a strong view one way or another on the ethics of asset managers taking PPP loans. I get the criticism (legislative intent was to bridge payroll expense for public-facing companies in extreme duress from mandatory lockdowns), but I also believe the language describing program qualification was intentionally broad enough to allow asset managers and law firms and accounting firms and other similarly situated companies to apply for a forgivable PPP loan in good faith. Clearly there is nothing illegal about a qualifying asset manager accepting PPP money. But it IS a bad look if the narrative spotlight focuses on “Wall Street rich guys” taking PPP money, and I think that’s exactly what is starting to happen.

I first noticed this narrative backlash in the social media reaction to a self-congratulatory blog post last week by Josh Brown of Ritholtz Wealth Management, an RIA with about $1.3b AUM and 35 employees, where Josh thanks his JP Morgan bankers profusely for getting them a PPP loan in round 1 after learning that Q1 billings were down by … wait for it … 12%. You can read the post here in all its glory – https://thereformedbroker.com/2020/05/25/under-pressure/ – it’s a masterclass in tone deafness, all the more odd because Josh is usually pretty adept at this stuff (1.1 million Twitter followers and a fixture on CNBC).

Given Josh’s celebrity status on Fintwit and the blogosphere, his post was picked up by various media outlets, like CityWire (https://citywireusa.com/registered-investment-advisor/news/1-3bn-ritholtz-wealth-takes-out-ppp-loan/a1360996). It didn’t help that Josh’s partner, Barry Ritholtz, wrote a decently popular book titled “Bailout Nation”, railing at this type of stuff.

Since then, I’ve seen a social media resurfacing of older articles and opinion pieces, like this WSJ piece from April 20 (PPP Loan Terms Amount to Legalized Fraud: Healthy companies can easily exploit aid meant for those that had to shut down), as well as more recent articles about larger RIAs taking PPP money, such as Carson Group ($12b), Sanctuary Wealth ($9b), Sequoia Financial Group ($4.6b), Crestone ($3b), and IPG Investment Advisors ($2b).

Does this early-stage narrative have legs? Time will tell, but I think it probably does. As you can imagine, these articles are red meat for the always simmering anti-Wall Street sentiment, particularly in an election season and particularly as the stock market goes up even as the real economy suffers. I think there will be a lot more articles like this … no matter how unfair this treatment might be, it’s just too juicy for any political entrepreneur or media voice to pass up.

Like many of you, this is an issue that hits home for Rusty and me. Second Foundation Partners did not accept PPP funds … not because we thought it was unethical (particularly after the program was reloaded with additional capital in round 2), and not because our small business couldn’t use the money to support payroll as it was intended, but because we thought it could compromise our long-term business and brand if the narrative turned in this direction. If your asset management firm has a similar sensitivity to this narrative, it’s worth paying close attention to these developments.

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The Hertz Story Isn’t What You Think

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Carl Icahn, sharing a laugh

Hertz awards over $16 million in retention bonus to key executives (Reuters)

U.S. car rental company Hertz Global Holdings (HTZ.N) said on Tuesday it has paid about $16.2 million in retention bonuses to a range of key executives at the director level and above, days after the company filed for bankruptcy protection.

The company paid President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Stone $700,000, and Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Jamere Jackson $600,000 as retention bonuses, Hertz said in a filing to the U.S. regulators.

Last week, the board of the company, which counts billionaire investor Carl Icahn as its largest shareholder with a nearly 39% stake, allowed it to seek chapter 11 protection in a U.S. bankruptcy court in Delaware.


My Twitter feed this morning was deluged with people calling out Hertz for awarding $16 million in retention bonuses to senior executives right before they declared bankruptcy.

Sure looks like a classic BITFD adventure in financialization, right? Where entrenched, self-dealing executives transfer vast wealth to themselves in the good times, protect themselves in the bad times, and leave 38,000 rank-and-file Hertz employees to twist in the wind.

But this is not that story.

The Hertz bankruptcy is not a story of entrenched, self-dealing management. Nope, if anything management is getting screwed here, and the $16 million in retention bonuses – spread over 340 employees – is on the way, way, way low end for what I’d expect. This feels to me more like an ultimatum for management than a reward, something like, “Take this to keep your mouth shut and rip up your employment contract, or hit the road and we’ll see you in court.”

Consider this. A week ago Kathryn Marinello was the President and CEO of Hertz, a position she’s held since January 2017. She’s out, left holding 408,000 shares of basically worthless stock. BTW, she spent more of her own money buying Hertz shares on the open market ($520,000) than she pocketed from sales ($355,000). Neither CFO Jamere Jackson (189,000 shares) nor new CEO and former EVP Paul Stone (48,000 shares) has ever sold a share of stock.

I mean, I don’t feel sorry for this crew. Marinello’s cash comp in 2019 was $3.6 million. CFO Jackson got $1.6 million in cash comp, and EVP Stone got $1.1 million. Sure, their stock holdings are now worth squat, but with the exception of 40,000 shares Marinello bought with her own money, they paid nothing for these shares.

But this is not a story of financialization by an entrenched, self-dealing management team.

It’s a story of financialization by an entrenched, self-dealing minority ownership team.

On June 30, 2016, Carl Icahn led a restructuring of “Old Hertz”, where the Hertz Equipment Rental Corporation (HERC) was split off from the car rental operations (Hertz Global Holdings). Each became a separate publicly-traded company (Icahn with 39% equity stake in Hertz and a 15% stake in HERC), each installed an Icahn-controlled board (not “controlled” in a legal sense, but controlled sure enough), and each started taking on massive amounts of debt.

How much debt?

Well, HERC has about $2.1 billion in long-term debt, against an equity market cap of only $830 million (and that’s more than twice what it was at the March lows). The equity position is what we might call a stub … a small piece of the enterprise value of the overall corporation (debt + equity – cash). If you want to understand HERC as an equity investment, you better focus your analysis on that debt position and how the company can support that kind of leverage!

As for the debt levels at Hertz … LOL.

Hertz has more than $19 billion in long-term debt, against a market cap that was (at its 2019 peak!) about $2.1 billion. Now there’s a stub for you.

It’s hard for me to adequately convey the playground that an insanely levered rental company – whether it rents cars or construction equipment – provides for a financialization genius like Carl Icahn. Between asset depreciation assumptions, cost of capital assumptions, and the ability to securitize or otherwise move assets off your balance sheet … the accounting cookie jar that a rental company gives Icahn is otherworldly. Keep in mind, too, that in 2017 – more than a year after Icahn took control – Hertz was forced to report that management had “identified material weaknesses in our internal control over financial reporting.”

And then this happened:

  • Per the 2019 10-k, Hertz paid Icahn-controlled companies $57 million in related party transactions last year, including property lease payments.
  • Per the 2019 10-k, Hertz pension plan obligations are now underfunded by $126 million.
  • Per the 2019 10-k, last year Hertz raised $750 million in new equity, $500 million in new debt maturing in 2026, and $900 million in new debt maturing in 2028. With those proceeds, Hertz redeemed $700 million of debt due in 2020, $500 million of debt due in 2021, and $900 million of Senior Second Priority Secured Notes.

So sure, you can get all worked up about the $16 million in retention “bonuses” that the Icahn board approved to 340 employees if you like.

Me, I’m more curious about the related party transactions, what happens to the pension fund, and who owned those second priority notes.


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Children of Men

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[first lines]

Newsreader:    Day 1,000 of the Siege of Seattle.

Newsreader:    The Muslim community demands an end to the Army’s occupation of mosques.

Newsreader:    The Homeland Security bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. The deportation of illegal immigrants will continue. Good morning.

— Children of Men (2006)


After the global flu pandemic of 2008, mankind loses its ability to conceive children, and the world begins a long, gradual descent into anarchy and despair. By 2027, Britain is the one civilized nation remaining, although it has transformed itself into a brutal police state to manage not just a fin de siècle, but a fin to … humanity.

That’s the premise of Children of Men, a great book by PD James and an even better movie by Alfonso Cuaron. It’s a premise that’s ringing pretty loud in my ears right now.


Here’s the problem. We are in an incredibly path-dependent world right now.

What does that mean? It means that our world can go in two totally different directions depending on a roll of the dice. It’s like the Democratic primary … if Elizabeth Warren drops out of the race before Super Tuesday and Amy Klobuchar stays in, then Bernie Sanders is on the ballot against Donald Trump this fall, not Joe Biden. But that’s not what happened.

Do we get a vaccine in 6 months or 16 months? Or never?

If we get a vaccine in 6 months, then I think that all of the “stimulus”, all of the extraordinary monetary and fiscal policy, can be – not reversed – but survived. The narrative that the trillions provided to support financial asset prices amount to a “bridge loan” works in this scenario, as actual economic activity starts chugging back to “normal”.

But if the answer is never, or even if the answer is 16 months from now … then the “bridge loan” narrative fails. Then the truly hard choices begin. How does a government support financial asset prices through direct fiscal expenditures permanently? Under these circumstances, I think our political and economic systems alike fall into national socialism. Into fascism. It’s the Children of Men scenario.

The vaccine question is a derivative of a more fundamental question, one that I’ve been wrestling with for a couple of months now.

Can a free world survive an endemic COVID-19, a disease that is a chronic affliction, killing 500 to 1,000 Americans every day (many more in countries like Brazil or India) but never collapsing a major metro hospital system?

I used to think yes. Now I think no.

I think no because I don’t believe we have legitimate governments in the four countries that matter for global security: the United States, China, Russia and India. I don’t believe we have governments in these countries based on the consent of the governed and committed to the interests of its citizenry over institutional self-interest. This isn’t a Trump thing (although he makes it much worse), any more than it’s a Modi thing or a Xi thing or a Putin thing. This isn’t something that gets fixed with an election or a putsch. This is a structural thing. It’s a regime thing. And it’s not that the governing regimes in Berlin or London or Paris are paragons of virtue, it’s that they just don’t matter for what I’m about to say.

In the same way that highly efficient economic supply chains are wrecked under the stress of COVID-19, so are highly efficient political supply chains.

And that’s what modern governing regimes are: highly efficient political supply chains. This is the machinery of what I call The Long Now, where the threat of the economic future is removed by fiat and narrative, replaced by constructed political threats like who can use what bathroom, such that citizens “spend” their votes to purchase a political experience that tastes delicious (mmm, dopamine), but has zero lasting or fundamental economic consequence. It’s pure political theater, finely-tuned to serve the institutional self-interest of every faction in the Nudging State.

But when there’s an actual real-world threat to that real-world economic future, a threat that really doesn’t care about your narratives but just marches ahead according to its biology … well, that’s what breaks the Long Now equilibrium. Like all well-managed supply chains, the Long Now is perfectly robust on its own terms. It IS an equilibrium in its own system. But COVID-19 comes from outside that system, and it’s a wrecking ball. Sure, every faction will try to politicize COVID-19, to turn it into more of the same political theater (A Truth That’s Told With Bad Intent), and that can work if there’s a vaccine in six months take the threat away for real. But it doesn’t work if COVID-19 becomes a permanent part of our public health landscape.

Without a vaccine against COVID-19, I don’t believe the governments of the Big 4 Global Security powers – the US, China, Russia and India – can survive without participating in a major power war to mobilize domestic public support against a foreign Other.

So they will.

This is the next systemic shoe to drop – major power war – and I think it’s entirely path-dependent on whether or not we get a truly effective vaccine into initial deployment by the end of the year. Otherwise it’s not just our economic supply chains that will breakdown irretrievably, but our political supply chains, too.


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A Truth That’s Told With Bad Intent

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Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required): A Truth That’s Told With Bad Intent


A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

William Blake (1757 – 1827)


That’s Isaac Newton in William Blake’s painting, one of the major villains in Blake’s philosophy. Why? Because Newton was a modeler, a proponent of Science with a capital S, the most repressive force in the modern age.

I think Blake was absolutely right.


Our narratives of COVID-19 are all lies.

They are lies of a particular sort, political narratives that have a nugget of truth within them, but are told with bad intent. They are told this way because it works. Because the nugget of truth hides a deeper, unpleasant truth. And a Big Lie.

Some are narratives of the political left. Some are narratives of the political right.

They are all narratives of betrayal, meaning that they seek to excuse or promote policies designed for institutional advantage rather than the common good.

Clockwise from Donald Trump, that’s Fox’s Sean Hannity, the CDC’s Robert Redfield, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Harvard President Larry Bacow, the White House’s Larry Kudlow, and Vox co-founder Ezra Klein. They all get their moment of shame in our magnum opus on the ubiquitous institutional betrayals here in the early days of the pandemic age – First the People.

How do you recognize a political narrative of betrayal?

It’s always based on a model.

A political narrative of betrayal is always a top-down application of social abstraction, where a behavioral model is treated as the thing unto itself, falsely elevated as the subject and object of policy, rather than relegated to the analytical toolbox where it belongs. A political narrative of betrayal will always use “model” as a noun rather than “model” as a verb. A political narrative of betrayal always BEGINS with a prescriptive model of mass behavior – a model that by the most amazing coincidence serves the institutional advantage of the narrative creator – and ENDS with a forced fit to the individual citizen.

All political narratives of betrayal start like this, with a disembodied, modeled abstraction like “the American way of life” or “the economy” or “the market” or “public health” or “national security”. An abstraction that is then defined for you in such a way as to logically require the willing abdication of your individual rights, first as an American and ultimately as a human being.

A political lie always starts by establishing a disembodied, modeled abstraction like “the economy”. From there, the political lie will then start talking about the “sacrifices” that we citizens need to make for this disembodied, modeled abstraction.

Nothing makes me angrier.

Nothing makes me angrier than a politician like Chris Christie, a man whose idea of personal sacrifice is a regular order of fries, shaking his finger at us and telling us how reopening the local Arby’s is just like fighting Nazi Germany, how OUR deaths then and now are a “necessary sacrifice” in order to  “stand up for the American way of life.”

The American Way of Life™ does not exist. It’s not a thing.

What exists is the way of life of Americans.

Start with the individual American. Start with their political rights. Start with the citizens themselves. This is how a legitimate government acts in both words and deeds.

The government’s job – its ONE JOB – is to protect our individual rights in ways that we cannot do ourselves. That’s not an easy job. At all. There are trade-offs and gray areas, and clear-eyed/full-hearted people can disagree on how to accomplish that job. But it is the job.

Its job is NOT to create “alternative” facts like modeled seasonal flu deaths or modeled herd immunity or modeled COVID-19 deaths in nudging service to institutional goals. Its job is NOT to champion the rights of the politically-connected few and ignore the rights of the politically-unconnected many. Its job is NOT to deny the rights of any citizen in service to a politically convenient abstraction like “the American way of life” or “the economy” or “public health”.

When individual rights conflict in unavoidable ways or we are faced with an immediate and overwhelming threat to our system of individual rights, a legitimate government based on the consent of the governed may be forced to decide which citizens’ rights must be temporarily suspended. This is a legitimate government’s last resort.

Today it is our government’s first resort.

Today it is the first choice of our political leaders – White House and statehouse, Democrat and Republican – to decide which rights to prioritize and which rights to deny in service to THEIR conception of what society should look like. All wrapped up in a nugget of truth told with bad intent.

This is how an illegitimate government acts.

Like this:


Model-driven Narrative #1

Whatabout the Flu?

Dr. Sanjay “minor compared to the flu” Gupta 
Rush “it’s just the common cold, folks” Limbaugh
  • Political goal: COVID-19 threat minimization.
  • Truth nugget: The seasonal flu is a nasty (and mitigatable) disease.
  • Deep Truth nugget: We are shockingly blasé about all sorts of largely preventable deaths, and we warehouse our elderly parents in horrible places.
  • Big Lie:  This isn’t a big deal.
  • Policy prescription: Wash your hands, boys and girls!
  • Embedded model:   Laughably inaccurate models of seasonal flu deaths, designed to nudge popular adoption of annual vaccinations.

As the US death toll mounts, this narrative fades farther and farther into the background of our collective memory, but “Whatabout the Flu?” dominated the early weeks of American policy debates. And while it’s easy to find examples of this narrative from the political right, let’s not forget that CNN and Vox were beating this drum as hard as they could when Trump was shutting down some flights from China.

People don’t believe me when I tell them that we don’t actually count flu deaths, that the numbers thrown around by the Dr. Guptas and the Rush Limbaughs are taken from CDC models of pneumonia deaths. But it’s true. Basically we count pediatric flu deaths and hospitalized adult flu deaths, multiply by six, and intentionally generate an inflated flu death total. Why intentional? Because you need to be nudged into taking your annual flu vaccine.

If we compare, for instance, the number of people who died in the United States from COVID-19 in the second full week of April to the number of people who died from influenza during the worst week of the past seven flu seasons (as reported to the CDC), we find that the novel coronavirus killed between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu. In other words, the coronavirus is not anything like the flu: It is much, much worse. – Scientific American (April 28, 2020)

On an apples-to-apples, counted deaths versus counted deaths basis, there is no comparison between COVID-19 and the flu. It’s pure narrative. Pure hokum. All based on a laughably inaccurate model. All geared towards the political lie of COVID-19 minimization.


Model-driven Narrative #2

Herd Immunity!

Anders “the death toll surprised us” Tegnell of Sweden 
Dan “more important things than living” Patrick of Texas

  • Political goal: Preservation of economic status quo.
  • Truth nugget: Massive unemployment is devastating.
  • Deep Truth nugget: Massive unemployment is particularly devastating to incumbent politicians.
  • Big Lie:  In the meantime, we can protect the olds and the sicks.
  • Policy prescription: Hey, you’ll probably be fine! I mean … probably.
  • Embedded model:   Laughably inaccurate models of COVID-19 infection spread and severity, designed to nudge fantasies of V-shaped recoveries in the stock market and commercial real estate prices.

Again, it’s easy to find examples of this narrative from the political right, but let’s not forget that the most prominent national example of “Herd Immunity!” policy is driven by the leftwing Social Democrats – Green Party coalition in Sweden. Again, the politicization of these narratives is not a left/right thing, it’s a power thing.

It’s a high-functioning sociopath thing.

What do I mean by sociopathy and division?

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill the old rather than the young, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if older Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill those with “pre-existing conditions”, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if chronically ill Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus hits certain “hotspot” regions, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if hotspot regions are lesser regions, as if we should think of Americans who live there differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are in “our” region.

And once you stop thinking in terms of trade offs, once you stop thinking in terms of probabilities and projected mortality rates and cost/benefit analysis and this expected utility model versus that expected utility model … once you start thinking in terms of empathy and Minimax Regret … everything will change for you. – Once In A Lifetime


Model-driven Narrative #3

Flatten the Curve!

Gov. Andrew “we need 40,000 ventilators” Cuomo  
Dr. Deborah “Trump is so attentive to the data” Birx

  • Political goal: COVID-19 threat maximization.
  • Truth nugget: Lockdowns prevent a surge in cases which can overwhelm the healthcare system.
  • Deep Truth nugget: When we’ve got everyone freaked out about staying alive, there’s no end to the crazy authoritarian stuff we can get away with.
  • Big Lie:  We can get R-0 down to zero.
  • Policy prescription: You’ll find these ankle monitors to be surprisingly light and comfortable to wear!  
  • Embedded model:   Laughably inaccurate models of COVID-19 deaths, malleable enough to serve the political aspirations of both the White House and their opponents.

Of the three politicized narratives, “Flatten the Curve!” has morphed the most from its original form, as its early success in convincing even Donald Trump that lockdowns were necessary to prevent a healthcare system meltdown gave both its White House missionaries and its state house missionaries free rein to use this narrative to fill a wide range of policy vacuums.

The original goals of “Flatten the Curve!” – to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases with the potential to overwhelm the healthcare system – were achieved. The flood in New York City crested … and fell. Other cities that seemed as if they might follow in NYC’s footsteps … did not. Mission accomplished! But in the grand tradition of other initially successful emergency government interventions (“Quantitative Easing!”, anyone?) “Flatten the Curve!” is well on its way to becoming a permanent government program.

Today, “Flatten the Curve!” has become the narrative rationale for a range of extraordinary executive actions – on both the left AND the right – that would make Lincoln blush. This is the narrative that will propel the Surveillance State into a permanent feature of American life. This is the narrative that will propel the final transformation of capital markets into a political utility. This is the narrative that will propel us into a war with China. If we let it.


If we let it.

Okay, Ben, how do we stop it? How do we turn this misbegotten process of political lying on its head? How do we reject top-down, model-derived policies and their narratives? How do we BEGIN with the biology of this virus and the rights of individual citizens and build a policy framework from THAT?

This virus is 2-6x more contagious/infectious than the seasonal flu (depending on environment), and 10-20x more deadly/debilitating (depending on whether or not your local healthcare system is overwhelmed). It hits men harder than women, and the old harder than the young. Those are the facts. They’ve been the facts since January when we first studied this virus. The facts have not changed.

Knowing these biological facts, what social policies would you design around THAT?

As a 56 year-old man in just ok physical condition, I figure I have a 1% chance of death or disability if I catch COVID-19 when my local healthcare system is in good shape, maybe 4% if my healthcare system is overwhelmed. Both of those odds are completely unacceptable. To me. Other 56 year-old citizens may feel differently. Other 25 year-old citizens may feel the same. Each of us has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the legitimacy of our government is predicated on preserving those rights for each of us. Liberty and justice for ALL … imagine that.

Knowing these foundational rights, what social policies would you design around THAT?

If you’ve read notes like Inception and The Long Now: Make, Protect, Teach and Things Fall Apart: Politics, you know that I am a full-hearted believer in acting from the bottom-up, in bypassing and ignoring the high-functioning sociopaths who dominate our top-down hierarchies of markets and politics. I still believe that.

But it doesn’t work with COVID-19.

The core problem with any rights-based approach to public policy is dealing with questions of competing rights. Under what circumstances could your right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness come into conflict with my right to life? Under most circumstances, neither of us is forced to compromise our rights, because we have the choice to NOT interact with each other. If my laundromat requires you to wear a mask to enter, but you think wearing a mask is an affront to your liberty, then the solution is easy: go wash your clothes somewhere else. And vice versa if I think your restaurant does a poor job of enforcing social distancing and food safety: I’ll take my business elsewhere.

Let me put this a bit more bluntly. I think that COVID-19 deniers and truthers are idiots. I think that people who minimize or otherwise ignore the clear and present danger that the biology of this virus presents to themselves and their families are fools. And there’s no perfect way to insulate their idiocy and foolishness from the rest of us. But if these idiots and fools want to take stupid risks alongside other idiots and fools, if their vision of liberty and the pursuit of happiness is to revel in some death cult, but in a way that largely allows us non-death cultists to opt out … well, I believe it is wrong for a government to stop them. Yes, there are exceptions. No, this isn’t applicable on all issues, all the time. But I believe with all my heart that if we are to take individual rights seriously, then we must take individual responsibility and agency just as seriously. Even self-destructive agency. Even in the age of COVID-19. Especially in the age of COVID-19.

There are three common and important circumstances, however, where this choice to NOT interact doesn’t exist, where the rights of yes, even idiots, to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as they understand it will inexorably come into conflict with the right to life of those who understand all too well the highly contagious and dangerous biology of this virus.

Only government can provide the necessary resources and the necessary coordination to resolve these conflicts of rights peacefully and without trampling the rights of one set of citizens or another.

You have no idea how much it pains me to say that.

It pains me because I think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that our government will do that.

Here’s how a legitimate government would deal with the three inevitable and irreconcilable conflicts of rights in the age of COVID-19:

Healthcare workers and first responders have no choice but to risk their right to life in caring for all citizens who are sick, regardless of the agency or lack thereof behind that sickness.

How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?

By mobilizing on a war-time basis to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to ALL healthcare workers and social workers and first responders and public safety officers and anyone else who must serve the sick.

Workers who believe that their employer does not provide sufficient protection against this virus have no choice but to risk their right to life in their return to work, as unemployment insurance typically is unavailable for people who “voluntarily” quit their job.

How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?

By providing a Federal safe harbor to unemployment claims based on COVID-19 safety concerns, AND by maintaining unemployment benefits at the current (higher) CARES Act level throughout the crisis.

All citizens who use public transit or use public facilities have no choice but to trust that their fellow citizens share a common respect for the rights of others, even if they may differ in their risk tolerance and private beliefs regarding the biology of the virus.

How does a legitimate government resolve this conflict?

By mobilizing on a war-time basis to provide ubiquitous rapid testing in and around all public spaces, starting today with symptom testing (temperature checks) and required masking to limit asymptomatic spread, and implementing over time near-instant antigen tests as they are developed.

It’s just not that hard.

But it is impossible. Politically impossible.

So what do we do?

“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”

— Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

We do what we can. We howl our discontent. We resist. We help our neighbors. We make. We protect. We teach. We keep the small-l liberal virtues and the small-c conservative virtues alive in our hearts and our minds.

So what do we do?

For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.


Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required): A Truth That’s Told With Bad Intent


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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About CDS … But Were Afraid to Ask

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I know it’s forbidden to say this, but I like Woody Allen movies. If you’ve never seen Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* … But Were Afraid to Ask, it’s worth your time just for the Gene Wilder scenes. And yes, credit default swaps are the sheep in this story.

Here’s the replay for the CDS trading primer we held via conference call and screenshare for ET Pro subscribers:


I’ve also attached the slide deck I used in the presentation here: ET Pro CDS Primer deck.


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American Idol

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An 89 year old man who hasn’t gotten a haircut in months sits at the dais, alone, accompanied by a hotel ballroom all-purpose drinking glass filled with Coca-Cola and a stack of printed slides. The slides are text-only, black font on stark white. No frills.

The speaker is the most legendary investor and business personality in the world. His financial conquests have accrued an almost mythological tincture in their telling and retelling over the decades. He is Daedalus, having built a labyrinth of intersecting interests from insurance to electricity, and then a pair of waxen wings to fly above it all, with just a few dozen employees and contracts written on cocktail napkins. He is Midas, touching afflicted financial corporations in a time of mass insolvency with his rescue money and, more importantly, his imprimatur. One-eyed Odin sitting beneath the eaves of Yggdrasil, having paid a bodily price to have drunk from the Well of Wisdom. He is the Oracle, with tens of thousands braving the journey and the Omaha Embassy Suites to hear his annual pronouncements. …

Anyway, the old man spoke on Saturday. For a long time. The sparsity of text on each slide was in no way a signifier of whether or not he had much to say. Buffett was, as always, loquacious and brimming with interesting statistics – American history, market returns, inflation – turns out the Louisiana Purchase, at just 3 cents an acre, was an absolute steal.

But it wasn’t the same.

Josh Brown, This Version of Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett is the American Idol of investing. He is, as Josh Brown puts it so well here, an impossible combination of Daedalus, Midas, Odin and Oracle. He is a mythic figure, with a public persona and legend that goes far beyond his considerable investment skills.

Warren Buffett is a performer. That’s not a knock on him. Not at all! Public performance is what is required to be a mythic figure. Public performance is what is required to evolve from just a really good singer, someone who can hit all the notes, into someone who transcends mere singing and becomes an American Idol.

Really good investors – like really good singers – are not exactly common, but they’re not exactly rare, either. Transforming yourself from a really good investor into a Great Investor, on the other hand … well, that IS rare. And it only happens through the active creation of a personal mythology. It only happens through public performance.

There is no more powerful venue for public performance than a live audience.

This is how legends are made, whether you are a singer or an investor or a politician. This is how you build a following, not in the sense of casual fandom, but in the sense of zealotry. This is how Warren Buffett used the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting to transform himself from a really good investor – probably a great investor – into a Great Investor.



Looks like fun, right? I’ve never made the hajj to Omaha myself, but I know exactly what it feels like. It feels like an SEC football game. It feels like a performance at the Apollo. It feels like a campaign rally. It feels like an inauguration. It feels like a papal sermon in St. Peter’s Square. It feels like a Veterans Day parade.

It feels AMAZING, and that’s true whether you are there in person or watching on TV. It’s better in person, for sure. But it’s not bad on TV.

So what happens when you take the live audience away from a great performer like Warren Buffett?

We, the audience watching from home, don’t think the performance is as good.

Not because the actual physical performance is any different! But because we, the audience watching from home, no longer have the cues to tell us how wonderful the performance is. The crowd can no longer watch the crowd, and that means everything for how the crowd consumes the performance.

This is why sitcoms have laugh tracks. This is why executions used to be held in public. This is why coronations and inaugurations still are. This is why, more than 25 years later, China still prevents any images of the protest crowds in Tiananmen Square from getting on domestic Internet sites. This is how riots start. This is how cathedrals are built. It is the power of the crowd watching the crowd, and for my money it is the most powerful social force in human history.

When the crowd can’t see the crowd, the crowd loses its interest in the performance. We get bored. We tune out.

Like Josh says, it’s just not the same.

Here, I’ll prove it.

In mid-March, the producers of American Idol made a tough decision. Just as they were about to begin their live performance schedule in Los Angeles, where the 20 Idol wannabes would be whittled down week by week, COVID-19 lockdowns made it impossible to maintain that production model. Rather than cancel the season altogether, the producers decided to retool with two weeks of filler material focused on the contestants’ backstories, followed by a resumed competition filmed at the contestants’ and the judges’ homes.

So we went from this in the 2019 American Idol season …



To this in the 2020 season …

Where the contestants literally sing to the camera from their living room or garage, and the entire show takes on the production values of a Zoom conference call.



To be clear, the actual singing is terrific! Seriously, there’s a ton of talent (diverse talent, too!) on this year’s show. The backing musicians are AMAZING, and the acoustics are not as bad as you would fear. No idea what sort of mixing or editing technology is required to make the final product turn out as well as it does, but the producers deserve a lot of credit here.

There’s just one problem. We, the television audience, think it sucks.

I compiled the apples-to-apples ratings data for the first twelve episodes of the 2019 and 2020 American Idol seasons (Sunday night to Sunday night, same network, same time slot), both on absolute numbers of viewers and the 18-49 year-old demographic (which really drives the economics of these shows). The line drawn between after the April 5, 2020 episode is when the production formats for the 2019 and 2020 seasons diverged.

With the elimination of a live audience format, year-over-year ratings have collapsed.

Seriously, with these ratings I’ll be surprised if this season of American Idol isn’t canceled before they crown a winner. Yes, the show still holds up pretty well against its time slot competition, but this just isn’t viable for whatever budget and projections ABC had coming into the season.


American Idol ratings by episode, 2020 vs. 2019

Take away a great performer’s live audience, and you take away their source of narrative power.

That’s true for American Idol. That’s true for Warren Buffett. It’s also true for Donald Trump.

You think Trump is happy to replace his live audience campaign rallies with televised press conferences? You think he doesn’t realize this is killing him politically?

Whatever you think of Donald Trump, if you don’t realize he is a great performer and a master of the Common Knowledge Game, you’re just not paying attention. Without live performances, he loses a major power source for the November election.

I think this is a big reason why Trump is pushing so hard to reopen battleground states.

And one more thing …

If any of the sports leagues are contemplating TV audience-only competition, my advice is to think again.

The power of the crowd watching the crowd is also true for sports leagues. Maybe more true for sports than for any social function other than war. Without a live crowd for the TV crowd to take its cues from, the TV crowd will quickly lose engagement and interest. Regardless of the level of competition, a disembodied audience is a bored audience.

And that’s the only true death for any performer in any field. That’s the only thing you can’t recover from in the modern age. Boredom.

Welcome to the age of bread and circuses, my friends. Same as it ever was. Especially here in the age of COVID-19.


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The Pent-Up Demand Narrative

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In our ET Professional updates over the last few weeks, we have repeated one particular refrain.

The dominant COVID-19 narrative today is a “short and deep” economic impact.

There’s a corollary narrative here that we think is particularly important for investors, and it’s a narrative that we think is closely tied to real-world data that investors can track on their own.

The corollary COVID-19 narrative today is “pent-up demand” that drives the up-slope of a V-shaped recovery.


The “Short and Deep” Narrative

Here’s on overview of what we’re seeing in the Narrative Machine.

The narrative maps below represents all major outlet US equity markets coverage since March 1, with the bold-faced connections and nodes representing articles with language characterizing the economic effects as “temporary” or “short-term” or “V-shaped” in the first map, or language relating to “lasting” or “long-term” or “L-shaped” economic effects in the second map.

The way to read narrative maps is to look at the number and frequency of bold nodes, yes, but much more importantly you should look at the centrality and the connectivity of the bold nodes.

In the first map, focused on the language of short-term COVID-19 impact, you can see how this language is deeply connected to each of the most central clusters (general market commentary, fiscal and monetary policy, corporate earnings, etc.), and extends from those central clusters into nearly every other peripheral cluster on nearly every market sub-topic. The one exception would be any cluster that focuses on the energy sector. No one is talking about the oil & gas industry with short-term or V-shaped recovery language!

In the second map, however, focused on the language of long-term COVID-19 impact, the only topic with concentrated use of and connections driven by this language is unemployment (dark green cluster on right of graph). There is widespread pessimism about just how “short and deep” the labor market and employment effects will be, but that pessimism is isolated to only those topics.

Language about the short-term economic effects of COVID-19 is pervasive in the way we talk about markets today.

Language about the long-term economic effects of COVID-19 is not.


US Equity Market Coverage Referencing “Temporary / Short-Term” Effects

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

US Equity Market Coverage Referencing “Lasting / Long-Term” Effects

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

“Short and Deep” implies “Pent-up Demand”

When you dig into what’s actually being said in these articles and transcripts about the short-term economic impact of COVID-19, you find a corollary narrative about pent-up demand.

A strong narrative structure, like we have with “Short and Deep”, means that NEW information or missionary statements tend to be accepted if they conform to the existing narrative, and tend to be rejected or marginalized if they oppose the existing narrative. This is what people often refer to as “confirmation bias” if you want to take a cognitive or behavioral economics approach, or you can express it as a rational outcome of Bayesian information theory if that’s your cup of tea.

We’re in the middle of earnings season right now, which means that most of the missionary statements we hear come from CEOs and CFOs on their quarterly earnings call, followed by buy-side and sell-side missionary statements about those calls, followed by media amplification of the missionary statements that fit the “Short and Deep” narrative and cartoonification or downplaying of the statements that don’t.

Since these earnings calls are focused on what just happened in Q1 and what is being experienced in Q2 (almost every company has pulled their long-range guidance) it is nearly impossible for these calls to change our minds about “Short and Deep”.

What happens instead is that the market reaction to many Q1 earnings calls is a positive response to news that was “not as bad as expected.” That’s not a prediction about those companies or their specific earnings situations (we really have no idea), but an observation that the narrative structure provided the language to absorb reports that could be aligned with the “depth” of the expected outcome. In other words, there’s a structural narrative asymmetry to positive earnings “surprises” today, not because these companies are doing surprisingly well in real-world, but because they compare well to what’s dominating the way we talk about these companies in narrative-world. Narrative expectations become a strong market tail-wind.

It’s not that market missionaries are lying about what they are experiencing in real-world. On the contrary, virtually every missionary statement we’ve looked at has been consistent in expressing clearly and earnestly the depth of the problem in Q1 and continuing into Q2. But that directness has in turn granted those parties credibility to express optimism about the briefness of the revenue/earnings problem, so that the narrative of “Yay, Pent-up Demand!” and rapid economic repair in Q3 and Q4 becomes common knowledge – what everyone knows that everyone knows.

And that’s the catalyst we think could reverse the current market-positive narrative structure.

If real-world demand for goods and services remains at these abysmal levels … if language about the long-term economic consequences of COVID-19 begins to spread beyond the unemployment cluster … then the common knowledge of “Pent-up Demand” will diminish and the narrative structure of this market can become profoundly skewed to the downside.


What investors should watch for

What would we be looking for to judge whether this narrative structure is reversing? Here’s our list:

  • 2H 2020 Guidance: The rubber will begin to meet the road in updated guidance on the second half of 2020 that we should begin to see following the relaxation of stay-at-home orders throughout late May and early June. Because of the “Pent-up demand” narrative, we expect a lot of the initial reports (correctly or incorrectly) to be passed through that existing framing. But the guidance from management that will follow that has a different objective – they want to beat, and they want to get grants with optionality priced to permit those beats to benefit them. We believe there will be more information (in terms of influencing investors to change their minds) in the guidance updates in June/July than in any corporate missionary behavior about COVID-19 to date.
  • Real-World Retail Knock-On Narratives: The delay in retail bankruptcies in expectation of liquidation sales that will accompany a relaxation in lockdowns is not a novel observation. There are, however, credit and real estate funds with meaningful exposure here that almost certainly sought and will seek to dampen impacts on Q1 – and yes, Q2 – marks by not accounting for the full coming destruction in value to which they are exposed. The same goes for oil & gas, where hope springs eternal on 1.1-1.3x marks which relax the typical commodity price-driven model approach on the basis of ignoring “short-term volatility.” Real world BKs cause real-world portfolio illiquidity. Be aware.
  • Second Half 2020 Lockdowns: As we discussed in a recent ET Live, we think that the fundamental corollary to housing prices in 2007/2008 is the actual, real-world ability of COVID-19 to cause new hot spots that lead to recurrence of stay-at-home orders in some US regions later in 2020. If these re-lockdowns occur, they will place enormous pressure on the “length of time” narrative about COVID-19’s economic effects.
  • Democratic Political Narratives: Investors should expect the COVID-19 pandemic to be ruthlessly politicized as part of the 2020 election in ways that it has not been politicized to-date. They should furthermore expect the promotion of new narratives – especially by the Democrats – about the economic reality and the length over which the effects of that reality will be felt. There will be “Trump sank us into a depression” narratives. They do not exist today – at all. They will be new, and they should be monitored.
  • GOP Political Policy: Election year politics don’t just show up in campaign slogans and rhetoric about “Trump sinking us into a depression” or “Trump doing everything to rescue Americans.” They show up in policy. The embedded assumption in markets that fiscal policy will keep supporting small businesses and households is part of the narrative structure now, and the White House cannot allow that narrative to falter. This IS their reelection strategy. Yes, the DNC will try to hang a depression narrative around Donald Trump’s neck. The President and the Fed and the GOP-controlled Senate, however, will continue aggressive policy action to ensure a strong S&P 500 and other cartoons of better-than-expected economic outcomes.

The nice thing about this list, I think, is that fundamental investors and allocators are well positioned to evaluate these items. You don’t need AI or a massive team of analysts or even the Narrative Machine to keep up here. Meanwhile, though, we will keep focusing our research on the short-term versus long-term linguistic structure of how we talk about markets. Together, we will get through this!

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