This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Here’s the most powerful animal on our farm — a deer tick, well embedded, gorging itself on human blood.

Of course, it’s not the tick itself that is so powerful, but the Lyme disease it can transmit, caused by a spirochete bacterium named Borrellia burgdorferi, pictured below. As you probably know, Lyme is a terrible disease, difficult to diagnose and difficult to treat once established. Once transferred via tick saliva, the wormlike burgdorferi bacteria quickly spread throughout the human host, particularly into joints, the heart and the brain. From there, the bacteria cause symptoms including intense arthritic pain, palsy and paralysis, loss of memory and extreme fatigue. Our immune systems typically fail to create the necessary antibodies to fight the infection, due to both the antibody-suppressing qualities of tick saliva and the antibody-hiding qualities of burgdorferi. And in a process still not entirely clear but suspected to be connected to an autoimmune failure spurred by burgdorferi, these crippling symptoms can persist for years, even after all of the bacteria have been killed through aggressive therapy. This is a potent parasite, and if you’ve lived for any length of time in Connecticut, you surely know at least one family that has been hit hard by a tick-borne disease.

But Lyme disease isn’t the reason that the deer tick is the most powerful animal on our farm.

No, it’s not Lyme disease. It’s Lyme disease!.

Huh?

Lyme disease is a physiological ailment caused by bacteria and injected into your body by ticks.

Lyme disease! is a mental ailment caused by words and injected into your mind by humans.

Lyme disease! is the IDEA of Lyme disease. It’s the mental construction of a world where Lyme disease and the bloodthirsty deer ticks and the grotesque burgdorferi bacteria are EVERYWHERE, an omnipresent threat to you and your children. Lyme disease! is an infectious meme, in the true and powerful meaning of the word, not the ha-ha cartoonized meaning that we see every day on social media. Memes are self-sustaining ideas that live in the human brain. They are as alive as any bacteria or virus, and they infect every aspect of our social lives.

What do I mean? I mean that families infected with the meme of Lyme disease! don’t allow their children to hike or play in our woods. I mean that the meme-infected next door neighbors have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to wall off — literally wall off, including river barriers — their 20+ acres from all animal life that can’t fly. I mean that we have been sued — literally sued — by meme-infected parents who thought their child might have “caught rabies” (not Lyme, but close enough) from petting our dog some hours after the dog found a dead raccoon. No, I’m not making this up. And just wait. I can promise you that I’ll get “well, actually” emails from meme-infected readers of this note.

What we have in the wilds of Fairfield County, Connecticut (and I suspect in every exurb in the country), is a large population of wealthy people who for a variety of reasons want to live closer to nature, but are scared to death of nature! … the memes that infect our brains about the risky parts of nature, memes like Lyme disease! or rabies! or coyotes!. It’s not that these aren’t actual dangers. Lyme disease is a real thing and a real risk. So is rabies. So are coyotes. But our social lives aren’t governed by the actual risks of the real-life things. They’re governed by the memes. They’re governed by the metagames.

I wrote about this from the perspective of the real-life thing in Too Clever By Half, where I described why the coyotes in our woods always lose the metagame. They win every direct interaction with us tame humans because they’re smarter and braver than we are. But they lose in the larger metagame because the townfolk have access to armed animal control officers who are required — begrudgingly and remorsefully — to kill the real-life coyotes when the coyote! meme infects enough civilians. The lesson for all coyotes, four-legged and two-legged alike, is pretty simple. Don’t trigger the townfolk. Yes, you’re smarter and braver than they are. You can win the immediate game. But you will always lose the metagame if you’re too visible in your “winning”. Always.

There’s a larger perspective here, too, and a larger lesson. It’s the perspective of all of us. The meme-infected. Like me. Like you.

In my eight years on the farm, where I spend a lot of time clearing brush and cavorting around tick-rich environments, I’ve been treated for Lyme disease twice. Both times I had an attached tick, so I pulled it off and went to the doctor. Both times the doctor didn’t even bother testing me for Lyme, but just started me on antibiotics, because you can knock Lyme out if you treat it early enough. Maybe I had Lyme and maybe I didn’t. We’ll never know.

In the immortal words of Remo Gaggi when he and his fellow mob bosses of Casino decided to whack a loyal lieutenant who had the misfortune to have a slight opportunity to rat them out, “Why take a chance?”

Look, I get it. There is zero upside for the doctor to make a measured calculation of the actual risk of Lyme disease. There’s zero upside because the doctor knows that as bad and prevalent as Lyme disease might be, Lyme disease! is even worse and more prevalent. THAT’S the disease that the doctor was treating when she prescribed the antibiotics — Lyme disease!, not Lyme disease. Because she knew that even if the correct and rational treatment for Lyme disease was to do nothing or carry out some more tests, the absolutely correct and rational treatment for Lyme disease! was an immediate course of broad-spectrum antibiotics. It’s a no-brainer. There’s no doctor in the world who can stay in business for long if she doesn’t recognize the memes that infect her patients, who doesn’t nod understandingly and overprescribe when a mother wrings her hands over her child’s “exposure” to this dread disease! or that dread disease!, regardless of the disease truth. This is the metagame of modern health care.

Ditto with financial advisors.

You’re not going to stay in business for long if you don’t recognize the memes that infect your clients, memes like the fundamentals are sound! and we’re cautiously optimistic! and stocks for the long haul! and value! and bet on America!, all of which are most effectively treated with a profound over-allocation to U.S. equities under any and all circumstances. It’s not that these aren’t true and real things. They are absolutely true and real, just like Lyme disease is absolutely a true and real thing. But the true and real thing isn’t what drives our behavior. It’s the meme! that does that. There is zero upside for a financial advisor to make a measured calculation of the actual portfolio risk of a client’s under-exposure to U.S. large-cap stocks, because the actual portfolio risk isn’t the driving risk! that the client is infected with. So all financial advisors overprescribe U.S. large-cap stocks for their clients. We all know it’s true. We don’t like it, just like no doctor likes overprescribing antibiotics, but we do it anyway.

As Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone, this is the business we have chosen. This is the metagame of modern investment management.

But like I say, it’s bigger than that.

Five years ago, I started Epsilon Theory to talk about capital markets, and it will always be a core part of what makes me tick and what I choose to write about. But as important as it is to recognize and call out the memes that infect our markets, it’s even more important to recognize and call out the memes that infect our politics. And the human ticks who spread them. That effort starts today.

A preliminary observation before we get to the stuff that will annoy a lot of readers … everyone I’ve ever known, including me, comes at the question of memes and their influence on our decision-making from a very simple starting point — yes, they’re effective on other people, but not on me. I am smart enough and independent enough to be effectively immune from a meme infection.

No, you’re not.

If you get nothing else from Epsilon Theory, get this: we are ALL hard-wired — literally hard-wired through millions of years of neurological evolution — to respond positively to effective meme introduction. We are ALL programmed — literally programmed through tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution — to respond positively to effective meme introduction. It’s no exaggeration to say that our biological and cultural symbiosis with memes defines the modern human species. This is a feature, not a bug.

Eusocial animals (the “pure” form of what it means to be a social animal) swim in an ocean of constant intra-species communications. It’s why these species — the ant, the termite, the bee, and the human — are the most successful multicellular animal species on the planet. Eusocial animals have the ability to store, retrieve and broadcast information (yes, eusocial insects communally “remember” incredibly complex informational structures) in a way that non-eusocial animals simply can’t, and it allows the eusocial animal not only to survive its environment, but to master its environment. Any environment. Humans are essentially giant termites with opposable thumbs and fire, and that combination is particularly unstoppable. But it’s the termite-ness … it’s the swimming in an ocean of constant intra-species communication … that’s the most important of these qualities.

The downside, of course, is that we can no more resist the language of Hero! and Wizard! and Enemy! than an ant can resist the pheromones of its queen. These are the Old Stories and the New Stories alike. Memes are our greatest strength as a species. And our greatest weakness as individuals.

Memes are the stuff that Narratives are made of.

Fortunately, the human animal is a self-aware animal. For the most part. Kinda sorta. At least we have the ability to perceive our infection. Through a glass darkly, as the Old Stories would put it.

Self-awareness doesn’t mean some magical immunity to being influenced and played by the other players. On the contrary, if you think that you are immune to all this, well that’s prima facie evidence that you are not self-aware at all. That’s prima facie evidence that you are, in fact, the sucker in this big poker game of citizenship. No, self-awareness means a recognition that you ARE being influenced and played by the other players, so that you can use that knowledge of HOW you are being influenced and played to maintain YOUR personal liberty of mind and play YOUR best game.

We can’t change our nature as meme-susceptible human animals, but we can absolutely become better human animals, both instrumentally as game players and ultimately as citizens. We can absolutely NOT be suckers. We can absolutely NOT lose our liberty of mind — which is the only liberty that really matters — to the incessant meme-generation of the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy.

So how do we avoid being the sucker within this largely invisible poker game of memes and narratives that we are immersed in from birth, a poker game that we are biologically and culturally evolved to play rather poorly?

First and most importantly, we can simply recognize that there is a logic and a process to meme introduction and contagion in the human animal. Here in Epsilon Theory I like to focus on one powerful contagion vector — the Common Knowledge Game — but there are many others. Like all of the invisible forces that drive our lives, once you start looking for embedded memes and the logic that drives them, you will see them EVERYWHERE.

Second, we can use the new tools of AI and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to visualize the meme introduction and contagion process. This is what I’ve called the Narrative Machine, and it’s as useful for understanding the behavioral drivers of politics as it is for understanding the behavioral drivers of markets. Why is visualization so important? Because it taps directly into the way our brains are hard-wired. Seeing is, in fact, believing, and by showing you visual evidence of political meme introduction and contagion, you will be far more likely to accept the worth of my broader argument. It’s why data visualization is such an important topic, and it’s why Ed Tufte is a personal hero of mine. [Optical Illusion / Optical Truth]

More generally, NLP can help visualize what I described as the “cartoonification” of political candidates and political issues. From The Icarus Moment:

Cartoons aren’t just created to mobilize positive sentiment and supportive social behaviors (although that’s pretty much all we see in capital markets, because it’s a positive-sum game, not zero-sum like politics). The negative cartoonification of Hillary Clinton was both the most vicious and the most effective gambit in the last 100 years of American politics. To be sure, The Clintons™ brought soooo much of this on themselves. If there’s ever been a political candidate more ripe to be transformed into a negative cartoon than Hillary Clinton, I am unaware of who that might be. But where Donald Trump embraces and actively creates his obvious cartoonishness, Hillary Clinton had her cartoon imposed on her unwillingly, to disastrous result. Today’s key to political and economic success is controlling your own cartoon. Yes, this is why Trump won.

So what does the Narrative Machine show us about meme construction and contagion in the last U.S. presidential election campaign?

Here’s an NLP analysis of 124,000 articles on Hillary Clinton published in non-paywalled top-tier U.S. media over the year prior to the presidential election — where linguistic similarities create clusters of articles with similar meaning, essentially a linguistic “gravity model” (for methodology background on all this, see The Narrative Machine).

Source: Quid, Inc. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Quid, Inc. is not an affiliate of Salient. Software used under license.

It’s a dense narrative map because of the quantity of articles, but we can simplify the analysis by re-coloring the clusters by sentiment, and then isolating the negative attack memes.

Here’s the sentiment map. 20% of the articles are negative, including lots of negative articles in non-attack memes like Primaries! and Supreme Court!, 45% are neutral, and 34% are positive. Hold that thought.

Source: Quid, Inc. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Quid, Inc. is not an affiliate of Salient. Software used under license.

And here’s the re-spun narrative map after isolating the negative attack memes:

Source: Quid, Inc. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Quid, Inc. is not an affiliate of Salient. Software used under license.

Beyond the frequency of articles associated with this or that meme (Emails! clearly dominating on that dimension, with 42% of all negative meme articles published), there are three critical dimensions in an interpretation of a narrative network: geometry, time dynamics, and affect. The map above gives us our geometry, and I’ve found a scatterplot (below) to be the best visual representation of time dynamics and affect. Between the two graphs a fascinating meme contagion pattern emerges.

Source: Quid, Inc. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Quid, Inc. is not an affiliate of Salient. Software used under license.

First, geometry. There’s no real information in the north/east/south/west orientation of a narrative map, but there is significant information in distance, center/periphery orientation, and inter-cluster links, all of which can be understood with a simple gravity metaphor. The greater the distance between meme clusters, the less similarity in vocabulary and grammar employed in the individual articles that comprise the clusters (less gravitational attraction between the clusters). The more central the meme cluster to the overall network, the more coherence it provides to the overall narrative (a gravitational pull exerted in all directions). The more inter-cluster links (the long strands that connect one cluster to another), the more articles that explicitly have one foot in each camp, visualizing the gravitational tethers.

What we have in the Hillary meme network is a clear outlier in the Benghazi! cluster, as well as a clear super-cluster comprised of Wall Street!, Clinton Foundation! and Emails!, with Wall Street! and Clinton Foundation! being more central to the overall Hillary cartoon-ification, despite the far greater frequency of Emails! articles. The way to think about the peripheral nature of Benghazi! and Emails!, I think, is that these memes didn’t “take” in the same immediate and easy way that Wall Street! and Clinton Foundation! “took”. To use the deer tick metaphor, whatever ticks were trying to inject the Benghazi! meme never really got fully embedded in the body politic, while the Wall Street! and Clinton Foundation! ticks gorged easily to their little tick-hearts’ content. What’s really interesting, though, is the Emails! meme. Whatever the Emails! delivery ticks lacked in embeddedness, they more than made up for it in effort.

That’s my takeaway from the scatterplot representation of time dynamics and affect, where the green dots (sub-clusters of Emails! articles) are high in affect (the x-axis, representing the strength of “emotion” in article word choice, mostly negative, but some positive, too) and almost constant in duration (the y-axis, representing time). That second phenomenon — the degree to which there was an almost constant drumbeat of Emails! articles over the course of the campaign — is particularly rare and unusual.

Here’s what a typical meme infection looks like, as shown in a histogram for Clinton Foundation!. The meme percolates in the background for a while, explodes in an outbreak of virulence and Sunday talk show segments, and then dies back down again just as quickly.

Source: Quid, Inc. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Quid, Inc. is not an affiliate of Salient. Software used under license.

Source: Quid, Inc. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Quid, Inc. is not an affiliate of Salient. Software used under license.

Emails!, on the other hand, had multiple outbreaks and never died down. Sure, it got crowded out by other memes here and there, as the sum-to-100% histogram above shows, but I can’t tell you how unusual it is that a meme like Emails! persisted in such a virulent form for an entire year.

In the overall narrative network, not just the negative meme creation stuff, but the entire universe of media coverage, 6% of EVERYTHING written about Hillary Clinton for a YEAR was about Emails!.

This is nuts. It’s not an accident.

And please, I’m begging you, don’t send me a “Well, actually” note yelling at me about how Hillary Clinton’s handling of her email servers was a ridiculous, mendacious and probably illegal thing, that it was, in fact, a big deal.

I AGREE.

The Emails issue was a real and true thing, just like Lyme Disease is a real and true thing.

But you are the sucker at the poker table if you don’t recognize the incommensurability between the real and true Emails issue and the Emails! meme, if you don’t recognize how YOUR political behavior and YOUR liberty of mind was impacted by Emails! in a way that Emails could never achieve.

Mine certainly was. I was so righteously aggrieved by Emails!, thinking all along it was Emails. Emails! angered me for months. It made a difference to me. And then I did this analysis and saw how the meme was constructed and promoted. I saw how I had been played. If I knew then what I know now, would it have made a difference in my NeverTrump + NeverHillary position? No. But I’m not going to let it happen again. I’m going to do everything I can to protect my liberty of mind.

And in the spirit of in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound, here’s another sure-fire aggravating observation on the meme construction process around the most recent U.S. presidential election, this time from the Trump narrative map.

Source: Quid, Inc. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Quid, Inc. is not an affiliate of Salient. Software used under license.

Above are all the different meme clusters associated with Trump for the year prior to the election, all from top-tier U.S. media, colored by sentiment. Lots of incendiary memes in there, right? But here’s the thing. First, the overall narrative network is comprised of 167,000 articles, about 35% more coverage than Clinton received. Second, of that coverage, only 15% of the articles are negative, with 50% neutral and 34% positive. Third, of the negative memes, none had a persistence pattern like Emails!. They all spiked and faded like Clinton Foundation!.

Trump got significantly more coverage than Clinton in major media outlets.

Trump got significantly more positive coverage than Clinton in major media outlets.

Trump suffered from no infectious meme like Clinton suffered from Emails! in major media outlets.

I’m not saying whether all this is good or bad. I’m just saying that it IS. And what it isn’t.

This isn’t a Russia thing.

This isn’t a Facebook thing.

This is a mainstream media thing. A mainstream media thing comprised of people who, for the most part, would rather rip out one of their own fingernails with red-hot pincers than help Trump, but who, driven by the systemic pressures of their business and its utter reliance on Fiat News, did just that.

So what do we do about this?

Well … nothing. Or at least nothing to “fix” mainstream media directly. I say that because I don’t think it CAN be fixed, just like I don’t think mainstream political parties CAN be fixed. They can’t be fixed because both of these social institutions — media and political parties — are not broken from an  internal perspective of institutional profits and personal agency. On the contrary, they’re thriving.

Media and political parties are institutionalized ticks, and the tick business has never been better.

Look again at that Trump narrative map. Look at all the obvious negative attack memes — SNL, Late Night TV, Meryl Streep, JK Rowling, KKK, Megyn Kelly, Russia, Funny or Die, Judge Gonzalo — they’re not red! I mean, there’s some red in there, particularly for Megyn Kelly because it linked into the highly negative (and politically effective) Sexism meme, but for the most part the sentiment of the articles themselves is neutral to positive, even though they’re part of an obviously negative meme. How can this be? Sure, Fox and its ilk are going to be neutral to positive on all this, but they’re a small fraction of the universe here. Why is the “Failing New York Times” using neutral language to talk about Trump and the Ku Klux Klan? Why would they use language like “Trump’s ‘very fine people’ remark was taken by many as an endorsement of the KKK and other white supremacist groups”? There’s nothing inherently negative in those words. Why aren’t they hitting Trump harder?

Because metagame. Because the long-term evolutionary stable strategy for a tick species is not to maximize blood-sucking and egg-laying, but to balance resource gathering and reproductive success against the minimal requirements to keep the host species alive.

There’s that word. Balance. Like in “balanced” media coverage that of course is not balanced at all, but observes the forms of the free and fair press! meme that thoroughly infects all of us, not least the media participants themselves. Like in the balance of an equilibrium.

The current state of intense political fragmentation and conflict is a very stable evolutionary equilibrium for all of these professional meme-generation entities. Ratings are up. Subscribers are up. Engagement and participation are up. The host species is showing signs of exhaustion and stress, but nothing potentially fatal. If Trump did not exist, professional meme-generation entities would have to invent him.

So they did.

And once the miracle of Trump does exist, professional meme-generation entities must be careful not to kill him.

So they won’t.

Successful ticks have the same secret as successful coyotes — they play the metagame really well — and there is no more effective metagame player than giant corporate media.

They’ve been manipulating memes for a really long time. It works really well for them.

It just doesn’t work very well for us.

We are infested by ticks.

And yes, I understand that this is a horrifying photograph. I’ve used it because I want everyone to be equally horrified by the degree to which OUR ears are stoppered up by these monsters. Because as revolting as this picture may be, all of those ticks won’t kill the dog. They just destroy his hearing and ruin his brain.

Seeing is believing. Once you see the meme introduction and contagion process, you WILL take every step necessary to rid yourself of them. You WILL become more self-aware. You WILL achieve a greater liberty of mind, which is the only effective treatment for a meme infection.

And that’s what we can do. That’s what Epsilon Theory can do. Not try to be a “fact checker”, because that’s a fool’s gig in a world of Fiat News, where everything you hear is in service to this Narrative or that, a self-serving political or economic view served up with some veneer of “fact”. No, what we can do is measure what IS, without attaching any affect or opinion as to whether it is RIGHT. What we can do is visualize what has heretofore been HIDDEN, so that we can go beyond the immediate communication game and SEE the metagame.

Because you’re smart enough to make up your own damn mind.

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Mailbag! Fall 2017 Edition

Back by popular demand, it’s the Epsilon Theory Mailbag!

Always Go To the Funeral” and “The Arborist

Another rifle shot to the crux of the matter.

I would like to think that I, as a loyal reader of The Epsilon Theory, am onto many of the manipulations that you describe. But as I was reading this letter, I realized that I had fallen – lock, stock and barrel – for the powerful manipulation that you describe in connection with the removal of confederate statues. I, like you, really don’t have much psychological or emotional investment in the statues themselves (although I do think they serve as a constant visual reminder of our conflicted history – a good thing, in my opinion). But I am quite psychologically and emotionally invested in the maintenance of civility and order.

The manipulators have done a great job causing me to transfer my investment in civility and order onto these physical statues, thereby putting me in the uncomfortable position of defending something I don’t care that much about to prevent others (who represent things I abhor) from “winning.” But in the process, I now find myself siding with another group that also represents these same things that I abhor. This cognitive dissonance is the source of the increasing anger and frustration that many heretofore stable members of our society are now feeling and, unfortunately, beginning to express outwardly.

While I understand your point about “going to the funeral” of the “Cooperation Game” era of political discourse, I hope that is not a joint funeral with the “civility and order” era of society. I am afraid that might just be the case. I am especially worried about this because those (like the state) who, in the past, acted as a damper on disunion, incivility and disorder now seem to be the drivers.

Thanks again for putting a mirror up for those of us who strive every day to be a bit better (and smarter).

Jeff

It’s so easy to get pulled into these constructed, false “conflicts” … we are truly hard-wired to respond to this stuff. I am constantly catching myself falling into this trap, and I write these notes as a self-help mechanism as much as anything.

I suppose that you read about the vandalism and subsequent removal of the Robert E. Lee statue at Duke Chapel. I am just wondering how long it will take for someone to vandalize the beautiful marble carving of Lee at Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee in Lexington, VA.

A week ago, somebody wrote to the local paper that the Confederate memorial in Elmwood Cemetery near uptown Charlotte should be removed. Only history buffs and PC activists even know that it exists – few people ever go to the cemetery, because it is just about full. (Charlotte native Randolph Scott is probably the most famous occupant, BTW.)

My father was Southern through and through, gentle, loved and respected. He named me after two of his uncles, who were named after famous Southern leaders. But he never bothered to tell me about his grandfather, who was wounded in Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg and surrendered with Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, or his other grandfather who was killed at Gettysburg. And even more regrettable, he never told us a lot about his experiences in WWII.

All the best. I’ll sign my entire name, just this time.

Houston Lee VanHoy

On the other hand …

Ben – as someone who lived in Charlottesville for a number of years, your logic was peculiarly fraught and tortured this week…intentional or not, your note misses a salient point of last weeks armed riot – yes there is no other word for it – in Charlottesville.

What it was at its core was an intimidating show of force replete with openly carried loaded automatic weapons and rifles let alone pistols/revolvers. This is indisputable and the only question is why? It’s at least about promoting the myth that Confederates were not traitors, and deserve an honored place in our public square. I’m sorry if it makes anyone sad to realize their great grandfathers were traitors and racist, but there can be no justice until there is truth.

It’s not a matter of rolling back history, it’s a matter of presenting history accurately, and Lee and his ilk were prima facie traitors in every sense of the word to the United States and DIRECTLY responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. So why is Lee so exulted, and by extension, the Confederacy? It’s because the demonstrators want to perpetuate and glorify the Rebellions myth, and deny that it was all about preserving and promoting slavery – that’s a narrative that can be safely and properly consigned to museums at best, and have no place in our public square, esp. in federal places and local places where the local city/town wants them removed.

These people don’t need any explanation or sympathy from someone as bright as you. If these statues are so trivial and unimportant to the South sense of self, why not just consign them to museums. Fascism precedes Antifa, i.e. it is axiomatic that there is no Antifa without fascism first. Fascism is not a response to Antifa – thats illogical. Anyone with real pride would actively move in this direction to dispel misgivings that the South has not risen above treason, racism and white supremacy. Should be a no brainer…do you see any statues to Benedict Arnold in the South?

If a right leaning local population wanted to someday rename Malcolm X Blvd, and militant armed blacks showed up shouting “death to whitey”, we can have a dialogue of equivalency in this regard. Until then you are way off and justifiably at jeopardy being labeled as enabling of Nazis and white supremacists. Hopefully this was a rare “own goal” and not intentional.

It’s really not all that hard or complicated, and it only contaminates our politics when people make excuses for fascism and racism.

– JD

Aaaaand, there it is: I am “justifiably at jeopardy of being labeled as enabling Nazis and white supremacists” because I did not write a strong enough denunciation of Confederate statues. “Hopefully” this was not an intentional support of Nazis and white supremacists on my part.

I’m reading an amazing book right now, “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu. It’s science fiction, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, and like all great science fiction it’s actually just great fiction, period. Great fiction forces us to see the world differently, and “The Three-Body Problem” — which starts off in 1967 China — has opened my eyes to an understanding of what the Cultural Revolution really was. I won’t spoil it any more than that, except to say that JD would have thrived within the Cultural Revolution.

I have been reminded this week of you saying (I think it was you) that real danger exists when we move from viewing each other as good people with different opinions, to viewing the people on the other side as evil!

If you are a rational person who believes that historic monuments in the South serve a purpose (I remember a family vacation to Stone Mountain where I learned all about the civil war), now you are on the side of the Nazi’s – the damn Nazi’s my Grandfather (whom I am named after) died fighting!!! It seems we are being put into a box where you must choose a side … I believe both the President and fiat news are engaged in a war of propaganda … dangerous times indeed.

LP

We are ALL being played. Including JD.

“and by the way you’re bonkers if you think the Russians altered the 2016 election by one iota.”

Interesting take. Can you explain to me why they – the Russians – would invest so much time and money on something that has absolutely no impact? Also, why do advertising firms exist and why is propaganda a thing?

Jason

No impact? Russian chicanery had a HUGE impact on us, by sowing mistrust and apprehension about our electoral process, even though it had ZERO impact on the outcome. Best money the Russians ever spent.

The circumstances that create competition games can be overcome. As someone attached to the Nixon Administration, the fact that the core of the Republican Party in the House and Senate in the end refused to play those games (Goldwater, Rhoades [sic] and Scott being the emissaries that told him he had to leave) and Gerry Ford kept it from getting out of hand. It is difficult to see that dynamic in the current context. With the demographic Great Sort and the computer “optimization” of gerrymandering, and with apologies to W. B. Yeats, there is precious little center left to do the holding.

– Al

Yeats is getting quite the work-out in reader letters of late, for good reason.

If the centre doesn’t hold, are discussions of Fed Policy ironic, comic or merely prosaic?

Naked Capitalism shut down their already Moderated comments today. Like many places in society, people are losing their minds and civility is breaking down.

Less recognized is that we are beset by fairly organized manipulation and disinfo.

As an exasperated friend put it, “don’t people realize as a nation we are being trolled and all sides are falling for it?”

Parts of the media/gov/corps are doing the dog whistles while the rank and file of the same madly bark and bite.

Yeats poem “The Second Coming” is almost a cliche at this point. 🙁

– Ron

There’s still a center, but it’s doing what the center always does in times like this … we wall ourselves away inside our own individual gardens. We don’t engage. We don’t answer the phone. Ask anyone on the sell-side how their business has been over the past six months.

To loosely quote a line from Jerry Maguire, you had me at funeral attendance. I’ve often pondered what it is that brings those who attend a funeral so close together and I think it’s because we see ourselves in that box in the not too distant future and would like to have someone there to mourn with and console our loved ones also. I too remember who has attended the funerals and wakes unfortunately associated with the family and friends I’ve lost and the kinship that lingers long after the sad day. The way you tied that together with your investment thesis further in the piece though was brilliant and struck a chord with me right to my soul. I have too often in the past let trades linger far longer than they should and it’s just recently I’ve learned to adapt a similar strategy that you described so well.

I also agree with your assessment of the political landscape we’re facing. I was truly hoping for an awakening with Trump’s election, but instead we’ve not only extended the vast divide which began in the Obama years, but have actually increased it to the point I refuse to listen to the radio news, read the WSJ or pay attention to anything except what’s playing on the Classical Rock station on XM. I guess it’s the “head in the sand” theory I’m abiding by, but I believe I’m taking a similar approach to the one described in your approach to a trade. Everything I’ve thought about politics and politicians has led me to realize we’ve all made a very bad trade these past 20 years and the sooner we bury it and go to a new investment the better. I just hope we’re all around to see it!

– John

What John calls “head in the sand” behavior is what I call “walled garden” behavior. It is the natural human response to a world being ripped apart by the centripetal spin of constant competitive games.

Has the change in politics from the cooperation game to the competition game occurred at other times in history? If so, how long did it typically last and was there a major turning point during that process that marked that it was coming to an end?

Alex

This is an area where history rhymes, not repeats. Generally speaking, the only thing that gets a group out of a Competition game is an overwhelming external threat, like a war or natural disaster. The earliest recorded example of this would be the formation of the Delian League after the battle of Plataea in 479 BC, where the Greek city-states put an institutional structure around their alliance against Persia. This famously ends up becoming just a veneer for the Athenian empire, which some might say is the likely future for more recent Delian League structures like NATO. Pretty much any institutionalized post-WWII regime (Bretton Woods, the United Nations, etc.) is an example of Coordination game promotion. My favorite take on this is Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic book series. Or you could watch the movie.

I think the below article might highlight how we can get back to the co-operative game. I had thought that Hillary should have chosen Kasich as a running mate (I am party agnostic – historically voted both parties) – while I can never prove it, but I think that ticket would have “won” going away and would have been healthy for the nation.

http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/25/politics/kasich-hickenlooper-2020-unity-ticket/index.html

David

Seeing a lot of these cross-party and centrist match-ups of late, most of which feature Kasich. I dunno … the problem with professional politicians is that they’re professional politicians. The thought of leaving the cozy confines of the Party behind is just overwhelming. And the problem with non-professional politicians is that they’re billionaires, with all the disastrous ego-driven consequences that brings. What we need is a grassroots movement that’s both above and below party politics.

I think the political side of the competition game was firmed up with the Obamacare bill. No Democrat dared vote against; no Republican dared vote for. I see that as the official “us vs them” game which legitimized identity politics and ushered in Mr. Trump, who is both coach and cheerleader for his team in the competition game.

Miles

In a lot of your writing, especially about Trump, you make it sound as if Trump is the one who broke us, who made the game go from cooperation to competition. In late 2015, early 2016 I reached the conclusion that the current monetary and trade system was unsustainable. And that was because the world has been functioning with a set of growth models that do not seem to deliver anymore (I would call them broken). Trump and Brexit happened later, I believe as symptoms.

I don’t think Trump broke us. The world broke in 2008 and for 8 years we tried to cope and then balance sheets decided we needed a change and that was Brexit and that was Trump. Now, I do agree that he is different. He is a very good persuader (con-man?) and he comes with different ideas than what we have been told over the last 30 years or so.

Trump is an actor with individual responsibility, but he is also a product of a system which stopped working. And the game became competitive before him (see the Eurozone negotiations, see the increasing trade disputes during Obama).

Hillary was the great pretender, the magical thinking priest. “We are one happy family, let’s hold hands and wish for the best” kind of thing. And I think that is why she lost. People thought they would get more of the pretense. Yes, it means stability, but is [it] also means not recognizing that the game had already changed. I believe many (especially lower income) households realized that “cooperation” had become an equivalent to “stuck”, because there was no more tide to lift all boats.

Nicolae 

It’s a fair point, that Trump is symptom rather than cause, and it’s the central point that my partner Rusty Guinn was making in his companion piece, “Before and After the Storm” (or as I like to call it, “Make America Good Again”).

http://www.digg.com/video/tree-ladder-whoops

Jeremy 

Thanks for sharing today. On the subject of going to the funeral and given your praise for Kevin O’Leary, knowing your appreciation for the cinema, you may recall Danny DeVito in Other People’s Money.

Steve

An indisputable classic.

I’ve been interested in bonsai for many years and got into it a bit more seriously a few years ago (except with tropical plants) as part of my pre-retirement planning. I’m actually more partial to the original Chinese form Penjing which is a bit more disorderly (contrarian?) and metaphorically anti CB style. (It also means that whatever look I end up with can’t really be a mistake either!)

“By and large, it seems that Japanese artists have a strong tendency to impose order on their creations, whereas Chinese artists appear willing to embrace a measure of chaos.

“Clearly, they are less concerned with rules and the pursuit of perfection. Does it mean that there are no rules in penjing at all? Absolutely not.

“Conversations with penjing artists reveal that they are less interested in displays of technical virtuosity and ideal form. Instead, they seek to capture and convey sentiment and mood in their work.

“Their goal is to reveal an inner beauty, an essence inherent in nature.” Read more: http://www.bonsaimary.com/Chinese-Bonsai.html

We’ll see if a computer algorithm can do that.

Brian

Even if this isn’t true (Japanese bonsai artists impose order while Chinese bonsai artists embrace an element of chaos), it sounds so smart and I want to believe it so badly that I am treating it as true. Much like most of our political discourse today.

Makes me think of a saying my mom learned from an Indian furniture dealer at the Dallas World Trade Center – “Show your face.” Wedding? Birth? Anniversary? Funeral? “Show your face.” This phrase has compelled me to put on many suits I did not want to wear and to take many trips to the hospital when I did not want to go. But there is always some joy to be found by doing so.

And I loved the part about the animals. Makes me think of an old Proverb I have taken to heart – “The righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” This one definitely gets me out of bed on nights when I realize no one fed the dogs.

Regarding the life cycle of animals. I have long held that as a society we lose something when people, especially kids, think food comes from the grocery store. I.e., when there is no dirt involved with plants and no blood involved with meat. Even at their young ages, I have made sure my kids have had plenty of both under their fingernails. They may end up favoring country clubs to being in the country, but they will at least forever own by experience the baseline understanding of the cycle of life.

John

I haven’t been able to bring myself to raise animals for their meat. I blame it on the kids, but actually it’s me.

An infestation of Oriental Bittersweet, privet or kudzu cannot withstand the focused attention of a herd of goats who will first attack the leafy greens and then the tender bark of the vines seeking the crucial inner bark which they will pursue all the way to the root. It is then the responsibility of the goatherd to move the goats before they begin to damage the desired grove, fortunately they barbeque up pretty good and I make an acceptable sauce…

Joe

But goats are so damn cute. And they’re good. In the moral sense, not the taste sense, although I suppose that, too. I’m so conflicted!

How can I, or any regular run of the mill person, practically and pragmatically get involved to help “design an operating system that can compete and win against the billionaires’ operating system when the reboot happens”? I am asking with deference and humbleness…I am asking because I see what you see…I am asking because we (Americans or humanity in general…more along the lines of being an American) are better than this. We are better than racial tension, Trump, Clinton, debt, in fighting, political nonsense, billionaires’ controlling, etc., etc., etc. (the etc’s could have gone on for a while). I am asking because words without action are like intentions and hell (the road to hell is paved with the very best of intention).

Daniel

I’ve been wrestling with your question (What do we DO?) for a couple of years now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that political action on a national scale (third party formation, marches, etc.) isn’t the way to go. Instead, it’s hyperlocal political participation (city councils, school boards, that sort of thing) plus a national blockchain-based technology initiative to record video news so that it’s searchable, discoverable, and unalterable. Sounds boring, but I think it’s a transformative movement that we can ALL participate in. I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the weeks and months to come.

I read a lot of financial newsletters. I have been associated with financial services for 35+ years. I have been to several goat-ropings, rodeos and state fairs, too. So, I speak with a modicum of knowledge.

I read this recent “Always Go to the Funeral” article. I hate to admit it, but in review, while it was entertaining, I gleaned no useful action tactics from the theme; though I must admit, it was well-written, as far as verbs & nouns are considered and with obvious learning from Shakespeare literature.

I am still waiting for some, ANY, direction from one of your articles. DO you expect to deliver an actual OPINION, with an action plan, soon?

Steve

Short answer: No.

Long answer:

  1. For regulatory purposes this note is considered to be “general market commentary” and not “marketing material”. The day I start writing about buying XYZ stock or ABC fund, everything I write has to go through a much more laborious and time-consuming compliance process, and I wouldn’t be able to publish to the broad audience that I want to speak to.
  2. I trust that my readers are smart enough to read a statement like “I think that inflation and interest rates are headed up, and will be moving up for a long time, with all the caveat emptor implications that brings for investors” and figure out for themselves what that means for an “action plan” for their portfolio.
  3. I’m a portfolio manager of a hedge fund and co-portfolio manager of a ‘40-Act mutual fund, one of which reports its positions publicly on a quarterly basis (HF) and one on a monthly basis (MF). It would be … highly problematic … for me to write about “actionable ideas” in ET when I’m already acting on them in an undisclosed way within these portfolios.
  4. Even if none of the above constraints existed, I still wouldn’t write about buying XYZ stock or ABC fund. The world has enough touts financial newsletters as it is. There is bigger game afoot!

“Small-l liberal virtues” are philosophically opposed to “really old school notions like feudal bonds of personal obligation and trust.” The two cannot coexist.

The community supports both social and economic inequality (that’s the feudalism of which you speak). It will, either gently or not-so-gently, repress the upstart individual.

For his part, the liberal individual supports, as you note, free markets and free elections. But these are precisely the things that undermine the feudal organization’s bonds.

You are struggling to resolve the conflict that has perplexed us since the dawn of history. There is no known social organization that can capture the best of both small-l liberalism and the best of the bound community. The two have philosophies, bodies of knowledge that ultimately conflict.

John

To your point, I’m not looking to establish some sort of communitarian/liberal combo society, because I think you’re right about the incommensurability of how one defines justice and the good life within these two world views (Michael Sandel was on my dissertation committee). But I do think that there’s a sense of interpersonal obligation away from the State that’s front and center in, say, feudalism and theocracies and other admittedly illiberal societies, that is an extremely healthy corrective for the bastardization of liberalism that we live in today. Liberalism frowns on notions of personal obligation outside of contracts or self-interest, and you have to go to fairly extreme Rawlsian contortions to incorporate them. I’d like to incorporate more directly this communitarian gene of interpersonal obligation — a graft, to continue with the arborist metaphor — to create a liberalism that can stand up better to the Statist onslaught. Does that make sense? It’s a long putt, for sure, but worth the effort.

Horsepower

Cosmic JD tractor déjà vu. The exact same tractor is parked in my hay barn, along with cool attachments that make it so versatile. Brush hog (on my second one, destroyed the first one through sheer stupidity) rotary tiller (don’t try and plant wildflower plots without it) and the piece de resistance here in the snow belt, the snow blower with the six foot wide box. Heaven is a snow storm and 3 foot drifts on a long driveway. The farmer next door who taught me to run it scared the crap out of me by starting my tractor lesson off with “Up hill, down hill, never side hill. This thing will kill you” Then proceeded to list off all the people that had been killed on rollovers around us. So there are probably old farmers, and there are bold farmers, but there are no old, bold farmers. Kind of like PM’s huh? My first year with it I ran it out of fuel while using the bucket to clear the driveway (pre snow blower era, the dark days) at 5 in the morning in sub zero wind chills. Found out quick you have to bleed diesel lines when you run out of fuel, unlike a gas engine with its fuel pump. Neighbors got a big kick out of that epic fail. Why would anyone want a Porsche when you could have a JD? Thanks for being one of the really insightful commentators out there, there is hope for this business after all I guess. And if not, I’ve got some more wildflower plots to put in. Thanks for your work.

Mitch

Exactly like PMs. There are no old and bold portfolio managers.

I’m at the state fair in WI watching horse pulling right now. You’re right about that collar, this is incredible.

Adam

Changed the course of Western civilization.

As I was born in 1957, putting me in the largest birth year cohort of the generation. I can say from experience that low interest rates have caused me to save more not spend more. The whole Fed program of low rates since 1999, when Greenspan panicked about Y2K, has screwed savers and retirees (if they have any sense of risk). If interest rates were higher (and they manage to sidestep massive losses from the adjustment – e.g. at 1.9% inflation, in the old days the 10-year would be around 6%) maybe they would spend more and increase overall demand in the economy?

Jim

YES.

But there IS a way back. And, no, not an individual, but a connection between the physical world and the intangible world of investing. We actually had it for quite some time and it seemed to work as a means of preserving a means of measuring the success of prosperity.

It is gold.

How much should the balance sheets of the world contract? By maintaining the balance between the demand for money and its supply. Or by keeping the price of gold stable; adding to supply when its price dips below a target or vice versa if its price should rise above.

Of course the VALUE of gold doesn’t change – you can’t manipulate it which is the source of its beauty (indeed its supply vastly outstrips any slight demand for it) – central banks actions simply increase or decrease the value of money relative to a stable unit of account.

You are lost in the world of interest rates. Interest rates are NOT the price of money; they are the price of credit. If you can make the leap, the rest is easy.

You can have stable money and volatile (freely market based) interest rates OR unstable money and stable interest rates, but you can’t have both.

All the best. And, yes, we should build a statue to the man (woman?) who invested hydraulics – a genius to be sure; but also the creator of some fairly dangerous equipment.

Charles

I’ve been promising Charles a Mailbag note for a while.

From my perspective, Uncle Sam, Japan, and the Euro Block (and probably others, certainly China) are hopelessly indebted with no natural way of escaping their debt tsunamis.

Thus I think it likely that each such country or block’s central bank will buy and forgive ALL or essentially all such debt in “exchange” for a new regime of fiscal realism and a corresponding new currency such as the “New Dollar”.

I wonder what your thoughts are of the likelihood of this, and what would be the best positioning for individual financial survival?

Gary

If things get bad enough, I don’t think this is a crazy scenario at all. Google “trillion dollar coin” if you want to see how close we’ve gotten already. This is Jubilee, and the survival scenario is pretty simple — be a debtor in a developed country participating in the Jubilee. Even a creditor can do okay, because you’re going to get unbelievable political power out of this. Just don’t get caught outside the Jubilee zone.

Your comment suggests that Uber is actually able to make transportation a breeze, but this service doesn’t happen to increase overall economic productivity in line with consumer appreciation of its service. This is wrong. If you look at the actual economics of Uber’s business model and the economics of urban taxi service, you will quickly see that Uber’ isn’t just “relatively unproductive”, its productivity impact is powerfully negative. Uber is substantially less efficient than the traditional taxi companies it has been driving out of business, and has absolutely no hope of achieving profits or shareholder returns unless it achieves Amazon/Facebook like levels of artificial market power. Companies like Amazon and Facebook can reduce productivity and overall economic welfare once they achieve the levels of artificial market power they now enjoy, but in order to achieve that power they actually developed highly productive operating models and introduced totally new products offering huge new consumer benefits. Uber’s business model was always designed to skip the hard “figure out how to provide services vastly more efficiently than existing providers” part of the equation, and have been using $13 billion in VC cash to achieve industry dominance by subsidizing the huge losses needed to drive existing providers bankrupt. Capital Markets—by explicit design—have been reallocating capital from more productive to less productive uses. If successful, a handful of billionaires would become even more wealthy, but overall economic welfare and the productivity of urban transport would be significantly reduced.

Hubert

I drive for/use Uber because:

  1. My college degree is worthless.
  2. I can’t get a “real” job.
  3. I’m in debt.
  4. I can’t afford a simple house and car in the suburbs.
  5. I’m what you might call “poor” in old-school terms.
  6. All of the above.

anonymous

Heard.

The movement you speak of in the last paragraph… is that demand created by Adam Smith’s unseen hands? What will drive it? As you know from previous communications I think that the low productivity growth is partially driven by the unmeasured deflation inherent in your first explanation of measuring productivity all wrong. We measure productivity in terms of growth of output dollars per man hour. But in a deflationary environment we can grow output in units while the dollar value of that output declines (we have exchanged notes on that before). But I think the same phenomenon is responsible for the low wage growth to boot. So many commentators are puzzled by the fact that, given all the stimulus we have injected into the economy, why we have seen no inflation? My reaction is, given the tech revolution going on, we are in a sharply deflationary environment so the fact that prices haven’t gone down, shows the stimulus HAS brought inflation. But that inflation merely has brought price declines to zero. I.e. if we start with, say, 6% deflation but prices are flat, it means the easy money has generated 6% inflation that offsets. I also think that population demographics have a lot to be explored further. If our population is getting older and birthrates are insufficient to replace, we start trending down in the number of people. That has to have a depressive effect on GNP. But look at Japan, they have stably sustained such an environment for decades. So it strikes me that the relevant measure may not be aggregate GNP but GNP per capita. I.e. you can sustain negative GNP growth as long as it declines at a lower rate than the underlying population such that GNP/head (wellbeing?) is actually growing.

All of this is well and good, but given the explosion in worldwide debt it is still dangerous. The best way to fix that problem is inflate our way out of it. And for that we need real absolute growth. You suggest that that will come from your Maker Movement. But I am wandering what will spark that movement into being?

Jacob

A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens. It’s the only thing that ever has.

Is it also possible that productivity has collapsed because of the burden of over-extended government regulation in a post-GFC world?

Take financial services for example. Let’s say headcount has stayed constant. The make-up has changed materially. We have fired 4 traders and/or analysts and hired 1 programmer and 3 compliance offices.

Buy and sell side alike. With SarBox, Dodd-Frank, Volcker Rule, MiFid II, Basel III, short-sale restriction etc. the massive growth in headcount has been on compliance officers and paralegals and not every programmer is replacing the former traders or analysts but some are coding to prepare reports sent to regulators, exchanges or investors. This is the high of a productivity free fall.

I can’t speak to other industries as directly, however, I imagine directionally the pattern is similar.

Rich

I used to pooh-pooh the whole regulatory burden thing as more of an excuse than a reason. But I was wrong. The struggle is real.

Good stuff as always, but your analysis of the buybacks misses one key point – buybacks are a return of capital and you do not know (cannot know, actually) how that capital is being used. So on a superficial level you can say capital is not being reinvested, but in fact it very well may be – in fact, probably, since most shares are held institutionally, and the cash received would stay in a portfolio and be reinvested elsewhere.

The desirability of buybacks is debated perpetually, but I fall on the side of favoring them. If management really does not see a good real use for the capital, I would prefer it be reinvested elsewhere, rather than wasted internally on inferior return projects. I think this is healthier for the economy too.

As an aside, I think the “lack of productivity” issue is a measurement problem. There are a hundred little things that technology enables nowadays that we take for granted, and would be productivity killers if we lost them – but I don’t see how we can measure it. For instance, try calling an airline to book a ticket rather than using Expedia. You will waste a half hour on a 5 minute task. Or ordering anything on Amazon, versus driving to 20 stores looking for it. Or count the number of emails and texts you send in a day, and consider the time that would be required to make the same communications by phone call. Start looking for these instances in your daily life and you will quickly realize the productivity gains that we are making, without realizing or measuring it. “Things produced” may not show it, but time saved certainly would!

Gary

Reinvestment in public markets never gets to the real economy. Never. I know we’re all taught that S = I, but not all I is created equal.

Trust me, I get the power of stock buybacks, and I’ve had this use-of-cash conversation with management in hundreds of 1-on-1s. That’s literally hundreds. But the inferior return of investments in plant and equipment in a ZIRP world is exactly my point!

As for the “time savings” argument … hang on a second, I gotta check my Twitter account and see if I’ve topped 10k followers yet … that’s big, you know?

As always, great piece. I would add one more explanation to the “low productivity” problem. Whereas in decades past, employees would spend minutes a day on break or at the water cooler, they are now spending hours at their desks on social media, yet employers still report them working 40 hours per week. The reality is that many of these employees are actually working for 35, 30, or even fewer hours per week. What this does is increase the denominator and make it look like productivity per hour is low. The reality is that we should be measuring actual hours worked rather than hours in the office.

This is not just a theory, as there is abundant anecdotal evidence. I am 45 and spend approximately 0 hours on social media, but have asked millennials about it and they confirm my suspicions. They even talk about being criticized for not “liking” comments and photos fast enough. How can you “like” something that quickly if you wait until you get home that night?

Surprisingly, I have read very few articles about this explanation presumably because well-known economists are 50+ and use social media about as often as I do…

Sean

I think this is a big reason why our “time savings” from technological process conveniences (Google, Amazon, etc.) never translate into production or productivity. We amuse … hang on … YES, I’ve topped 10k followers! … seriously, go see @epsilontheory … finally! … ourselves to death.

Really enjoyed your expansion on why productivity hasn’t risen as much as one would suspect from technology. I think it may be due to the “Slacker Effect”.

I have noticed that many young people nowadays graduate from college and don’t really want a “real job”. Even though they are well educated and smart, they prefer to do something pretty mundane and low pressure. Often they provide some kind of personal service in an area they are interested in such as personal training, dog walking, or personal assistant/nanny. Of course there isn’t a whole lot of productivity gains possible in those fields and it doesn’t leverage their education and abilities very much.

It does dovetail nicely with inequality, since there is a good sized population of extremely rich individuals who desire a lot of personal services.

Basically, we have developed a small producer population that is enormously well compensated, leads very high pressure lives, and is serviced by the rest of society.

So in that way the changes we have seen with economic inequality and low productivity gains are politically stable and actually desired by much of the population. Probably destined to continue, notwithstanding hand wringing by economic bloggers.

Keith

Now read this …

Maybe I’m missing the point of “Horsepower”, but if you are advocating for making and buying stuff over seeking out experiences, whether as a provider or a consumer, or both, I think you are completely off base. Marx was all wrong about economics and politics, but, oddly for an academic, he showed some insight on actual life when he inveighed against soul-destroying alienation. And it seems to me that what’s important about your tractor (to you – not me, and not the economy in general) is not the making of it (which would best done by robots), or the buying of it (which decreases your freedom of action in life by decreasing your stock of money), but the experience of using it, whether or not you ever turn a notional “profit” on what you do with it, or contribute to the GDP. The value of stuff to humans lies in the positive experiences they derive from it, and as your Emily Dickinson quotation avers all we need to make a prairie is reverie.

As even high level “white collar” jobs are overtaken by AI-driven automation (yours, financial analyst – my former job, software developer) it can beneficially force us to rethink our lives, devolve economically (scaling back both our getting and spending), and focus more on what’s truly most valuable to us – the pursuit of just the right mix of personal experiences.

John

Yes, I agree.

I agree that you’ve missed the point of “Horsepower”, you’ve missed the point of Marx, and you’ve missed the point of Emily Dickinson. There’s a whole Jamie Lee Curtis riff on this in one of my favorite John Cleese movies, A Fish Called Wanda, but I’ll save that for another day.

The part that struck a chord with me was the marketing of an experience based economy over stuff.

As millennial living in Sydney Australia, I have seen many of my friends adopt that experience oriented mindset which encompasses – going to clubs and raves, extravagant holidays and buying food at work. Which equates to zero savings and even going into debt whilst still living with the parents when they all have well-paying jobs.

As a poker player, I interpret this behaviour as going on tilt. An indirect wave of the white flag over prospects of home ownership (prices are crazy) and a lack of trust in the social contract. You are completely right in seeing this as a distraction but calling it “experience economy” ennobles and empowers this irresponsibility. As a society, you can have another generation with the same bad financial habits of the previous.

I see real danger in this trend and the stakes are underestimated. Because if too many liabilities are places into the future, it means too many liabilities are placed on the government and most social upheavals are the result of such economic problems. This will increase the intensity of identity politics and fans the fires of resentment of the have-nots. I am a small L Liberal because as a child, I heard stories of the Cultural Revolution from my dad. Once a significant portion of the population is poor, you really see the dark side of human nature come out, there will no longer be any small L liberals. My grandfather was a farmer’s son who became a surgeon who donates most of his pay to the relatives who are still struggling farmers. As an individual, he should have been a poster child of the rags to riches story. In the identity politics of the Cultural Revolution, he was categorized as the elite and social parasite and rallies were held to berate him and his cohort. If capitalism is perceived as failing, the stakes are enormous to human liberty and rule of law.

Shaun

Well said, Shaun. Well said. I’ll stake you any day.

Before and After the Storm

I often think that the big divide in this country is between Rural and Urban.

Currently, I see amazement among (I suspect) Urban writers re the Volunteerism in Houston. But it doesn’t take a large-area emergency for this to happen. Fully 1/3 of our National Population is served by Fire Cos. that are Volunteer. I suspect the numbers are similar for EMT’s. In Rural America, it’s a daily occurrence.

Ron

YES.

Rusty’s piece is superb. I love the Durant book that he recommends. He fails to mention that it’s only about 100 pages. There’s no excuse for people to *not* buy it and read it. I have a first edition on my office bookshelf. My *only* quibble with the book is that they understand the broad sweep of history, but get things wrong about the decade in which it’s published. They perceive the civil rights movement as a minor passing thing, rather than a seminal change in racial attitudes. And – get this – they dismiss Warhol as ridiculous non-art that will be forgotten in no time! I think the book should be required reading for all University history majors … except the chapter on current events (i.e., the 1960s).

FWIW, I’d say the same thing about “Devil Take the Hindmost,” published in June 2000, which is a fantastic book about bubbles and crashes, but didn’t treat the tech bubble with anywhere near the wisdom or depth of previous cycles. In other words, historians should stick to history, not current events that haven’t yet revealed their historical role or import.

Rob Arnott

I’ve got The Story of Civilization set in my office … they were my father’s, and the pages are all marked up with his underlining and notes. It’s my best connection to him, gone 20 years now.

The inclusion of ARC on your list of “vetted” charities makes me think that it is not a very good list.

Al

Yes the American Red Cross was vetted, yes we’ve read the Pro Publica report (and others), and yes this is the subject of a vigorous internal debate at Salient. I respect your negative experience with the ARC, although I’ve had a very different experience and am convinced by the commitment of the volunteers and paid professionals I know there.

Ultimately it was my decision to include the American Red Cross on the list of recommended charities, and I stand by that decision.

Last summer we had the opportunity to drive through Houston and the whole area en route to a vacation cruise. We noticed two things:

  1. the area is massively overpopulated; and
  2. it’s low.

As we traveled toward the gulf, we noticed it seems the entire region is only two feet or so above sea level. We thought how lucky the people in these areas have been. A tsunami from an earthquake or volcano will literally wipe out vast areas and millions of people – living where they ought not to live.
Or a real genuine large hurricane with 175 -200+ mph winds with a 15 – 20 storm surge going onshore.

Instead, at this time mild mannered Harvey came but with lots of rain!

We noticed the TV videos of the flood areas and they appeared to be connected to rivers. Indeed, it was obvious that the worst areas, maybe all areas, were floodplains. 100% certain to be engulfed in water. With more than 100,000 homes ruined, it suggests the scope of the destructive policies.
Then we learn that the Houston, specifically, area has little if any development zoning controls.
Likewise, Katrina in New Orleans flooded places where no development should have ever been done.
Increasing population in our already overpopulated country implies greater calamities around the corner.
Seems you are missing the point.

Trying to make the world feel sorry for bad things that happen to people and will happen because of destructive policies is not helpful. To be certain, those people we see are living a very sad situation.
But the situation was caused by developers and their government subsidiaries. Incredibly, they prey on entire populations.

Totally avoidable.

Dell from Minneapolis

My first instinct to this letter was to respond with anger. I mean, I was going to tear Dell from Minneapolis a new orifice. Really let my freak flag fly, you know? And I still can’t help myself completely. It’s just too enticing, what with the whole “en route to a vacation cruise” set up. But then I read this below, from a Team Elite Ministry of Truth platform called Project Syndicate.

Hurricane Harvey has left in its wake upended lives and enormous property damage, estimated by some at $150-180 billion. But the rains that inundated the Texas coast for the better part of a week, and the hurricane that is about to hit South Florida, also raise deep questions about the United States’ economic system and politics.

It is ironic, of course, that an event so related to climate change would occur in a state that is home to so many climate-change deniers – and where the economy depends so heavily on the fossil fuels that drive global warming. Of course, no particular climate event can be directly related to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But scientists have long predicted that such increases would boost not only average temperatures, but also weather variability – and especially the occurrence of extreme events such as Hurricane Harvey. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded several years ago, “There is evidence that some extremes have changed as a result of anthropogenic influences, including increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.” Astrophysicist Adam Frank succinctly explained: “greater warmth means more moisture in the air which means stronger precipitation.”

To be sure, Houston and Texas could not have done much by themselves about the increase in greenhouse gases, though they could have taken a more active role in pushing for strong climate policies. But local and state authorities could have done a far better job preparing for such events, which hit the area with some frequency.

In responding to the hurricane – and in funding some of the repair – everyone turns to government, just as they did in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Again, it is ironic that this is now occurring in a part of the country where government and collective action are so frequently rebuked. It was no less ironic when the titans of US banking, having preached the neoliberal gospel of downsizing government and eliminating regulations that proscribed some of their most dangerous and anti-social activities, turned to government in their moment of need.

There is an obvious lesson to be learned from such episodes: markets on their own are incapable of providing the protection that societies need. When markets fail, as they often do, collective action becomes imperative.

And, as with financial crises, there is a need for preventive collective action to mitigate the impact of climate change. That means ensuring that buildings and infrastructure are constructed to withstand extreme events, and are not located in areas that are most vulnerable to severe damage. It also means protecting environmental systems, particularly wetlands, which can play an important role in absorbing the impact of storms. It means eliminating the risk that a natural disaster could lead to the discharge of dangerous chemicals, as happened in Houston. And it means having in place adequate response plans, including for evacuation.

Effective government investments and strong regulations are needed to ensure each of these outcomes, regardless of the prevailing political culture in Texas and elsewhere. Without adequate regulations, individuals and firms have no incentive to take adequate precautions, because they know that much of the cost of extreme events will be borne by others. Without adequate public planning and regulation, including of the environment, flooding will be worse. Without disaster planning and adequate funding, any city can be caught in the dilemma in which Houston found itself: if it does not order an evacuation, many will die; but if it does order an evacuation, people will die in the ensuing chaos, and snarled traffic will prevent people from getting out.

America and the world are paying a high price for devotion to the extreme anti-government ideology embraced by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party. The world is paying, because cumulative US greenhouse-gas emissions are greater than those from any other country; even today, the US is one of the world’s leaders in per capita greenhouse-gas emissions. But America is paying a high price as well: other countries, even poor developing countries, like Haiti and Ecuador, seem to have learned (often at great expense and only after some huge calamities) how to manage natural disasters better.

After the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the shutdown of much of New York City by Sandy in 2012, the devastation wrought on Texas by Harvey, and now the prospect of Irma pummeling Florida, the US can and should do better. It has the resources and skills to analyze these complex events and their consequences, and to formulate and implement regulations and investment programs that mitigate the adverse effects on lives and property.

What America doesn’t have is a coherent view of government by those on the right, who, working with special interests that benefit from their extreme policies, continue to speak out of both sides of their mouth. Before a crisis, they resist regulations and oppose government investment and planning; afterwards, they demand – and receive – billions of dollars to compensate them for their losses, even those that could easily have been prevented.

One can only hope that America, and other countries, will not need more natural persuasion before taking to heart the lessons of Hurricane Harvey.

Joseph

This is not from Dell from Minneapolis, driving through Houston on his way to a cruise and making some off-the-cuff and ignorant comments. This is Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chair of the U.N. Commission on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System. Dell from Minneapolis is not one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Joseph Stiglitz is.

Now I’m not going to get into a blow-by-blow response to this Stiglitz piece, although like Dell from Minneapolis’s masterwork, there are some flowers here that I can’t help but pluck (“America and the world are paying a high price for devotion to the extreme anti-government ideology embraced by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.” If only we had had a president for the past eight years who considered climate change to be our #1 national security concern. Just imagine how much better off we would be today.).

But I’ll say this. The smiley-face authoritarianism that oozes from this article, the not understanding and the not wanting to understand the facts of Houston and Harvey, the global system that awards Stiglitz — an intelligent man who knows better — its highest accolades and sweetest rewards for his betrayals of truth-seeking, the sheer mendacity of the effort … this is our enemy. It’s my enemy, anyway. And combating it will be a life well lived.

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Mailbag: Life in Trumpland

The best part about this job, other than being recognized in random bars by 50-year old financial advisors who are always good to buy me a drink (hey, you take your celebrity where you can), is the correspondence with readers. I began writing Epsilon Theory 3+ years ago from a pretty dark place, and it’s still where I end up a lot of the time. But from the outset I started getting emails from really smart people, truth-seekers all, making their way in this world of mendacity and inauthenticity without succumbing to it, and it’s given me — if not an optimism — then at least the occasional absence of despair about the world my daughters will inherit.

I try to respond to all the notes I receive, but what usually happens is that the really good ones — the ones that require more than a flip answer — end up being marked unread and shunted to the “need response” folder on Outlook, only to die a lingering death of inattention over the following weeks. Ultimately I just mark the entire folder as read and let them pass on to the Great Archive in the sky, as it’s the only way I can live with the guilt. So to all of those Jacobs and Williams of the world … I am truly sorry.

As a partial repentance, if not solution, I’m going to make a regular habit of what I always found to be the most enjoyable part of Bill Simmons’ Sports Guy blog — the reader Mailbag. Geez, I miss the old Bill Simmons. Like Simmons of old, I’ll try to keep it entertaining rather than pedantic, and to that end I’ll sprinkle in some of the haters, as I find them occasionally fun when they’re not threatening rape or murder (Bill Simmons never had to deal with the Zerohedge commentariat). As it happens, I got more than the usual quota of great emails from my most recent note “The Evolution of Competition,” my take on the political and social polarization running rampant in Trumpworld. So without further ado …

I forwarded your note to my better half and she thought it was really good, BUT…

from your note: “…If you cooperate in a game of Chicken — i.e., you’re driving your tractor straight on at Kevin Bacon’s pick-up truck and you veer off from the looming crash…”

She needs you to rethink some things, and after she explained the facts to me, I thought it might be important for you (although I’m sure you have already heard from many of your 40-something-female-readers-who-have-watched-Footloose-multiple times!)

  1. They were BOTH on tractors.
  2. And this is the bender for your game analysis. Kevin Bacon tried and FAILED to jump off his tractor. He was FOILED by his shoe lace and thus WON the game of chicken BY ACCIDENT. Very interesting.

I’m gonna need some follow up from you on this one Ben, as she is leaning on me pretty hard to let you know that you’re not done with this Footloose incident!!

John

A lot of games of Chicken are won by accidental (or intentional) incompetence. For example, if I see that Kevin Bacon is stuck on his tractor and can’t possibly jump off even if he wanted to, then my only rational choice … the only way to avoid MY death in a crash … is to jump off my tractor. By limiting his competence and degrees of freedom, Kevin Bacon paradoxically becomes more powerful in a game of Chicken.

A variation on this theme is to convince your opponent that you’re not necessarily powerless to decide otherwise, but that you’re so mentally incompetent that you really don’t care if you live or die. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon famously played this “madman” strategy (in the form of being crazy enough to launch nukes even if it drew China and USSR into war) to get the North Vietnamese government to attend peace talks in Paris.

 Good piece. Decency and ability to stay above the fray is almost non-existent at this point. Not to be nerdy but I keep replaying the Star Wars quote “So this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause” (About the only good thing that came from those terrible prequels.).

– Victoria

That’s a good quote! As for the quality of the prequels … I mean, obviously you’re right. I can’t remember any of the Episode 1-3 quotes because I hear everything in a Jar-Jar Binks accent. And the acting … well, let’s be generous and call it Godfather 3 Sofia Coppola-esque. But isn’t it time for a bit of perspective on the entire canon? In meme terms, I think “Star Wars” is the functional equivalent of “Ronald Reagan”, in that both have evolved into expressions of almost pure nostalgia. Fun fact: the word “nostalgia” derives from the Greek nostos (return home) and algos (pain). There’s a wincing quality to so much about the Star Wars movies and the Reagan Administration, but it’s completely trumped by some sort of warm fuzzy emotional balm. I’d like to figure out how to bottle that.

 Nice job. Were you pro Gaga or anti Gaga? Your readers deserve to know!

Ian

I was anti-Gaga in the ET note “American Hustle” for what I saw as pretty profound inauthenticity around the U.S. election. But how about that SuperBowl™ performance, huh? I thought that was great. Seriously. And with game theoretic implications, too …

During the halftime show of the Super Bowl on FOX, after Lady Gaga’s performance, they went back to the studio and had someone ready to report on what the reaction to the halftime show was on social media. My immediate reaction – 1) How could I possibly trust FOX to give me an accurate take on the social media reaction to the halftime show that they just broadcast? 2) I don’t care. 3) Doesn’t anyone who does care (and is therefore already monitoring social media for themselves) already know?

Jay

Actually, I thought Fox was pretty brilliant in their coverage of Lady Gaga’s halftime show. They assumed that we were incapable of determining for ourselves whether or not it was a good performance until we were told by others (Missionaries in game theory terms) whether or not it was a good show. And they’re absolutely right. A classic example of The Common Knowledge Game in action.

 I am a pretty competitive person/athlete and always lost at Chicken versus my brother. I am still trying to repair the Chicken self-image.

– Kim

Me, too, and to my younger brother, to boot. Although I would bet he would say the same thing about me. It’s amazing how these social competitions in a Chicken format stick with us for a lifetime.

 Spot on. I’m doing daily battle with my family and best friends back home, and getting nowhere.

Drew

It’s the “back home” aspect of all this that’s particularly difficult on our social lives, I think. Geography has simultaneously become irrelevant with modern communication technology and the only thing that matters with the balkanization of economic opportunity.

 This guy is just butt hurt that Trump won. He is a delusional asshole. He thinks that what his side did was about is cooperation.

His idea of cooperation is me giving him half of my money and my wife giving him a *** while my kids wash his car.

In exchange he will offer my family some constructive criticism on how we can become better human beings.

Suddenly when I grab him by the back of his neck and throw him out of my house he finds my behavior objectionable.

What a douche.

– BarkingCat

Ah, the haters. I included this note because I think there’s an important point here. The meaning of Trump to BarkingCat is personal empowerment. Trump changes the story that this guy tells himself about himself, which is the most important story that we have!

In the mind’s eye of BarkingCat, he is now the powerful one, able to grab me by the scruff of my neck and physically throw me out of his house. It doesn’t matter that, in reality, the Takers and the Powerful are now more in control of his house and his real-world life than ever before. I mean, if you think we lived in a world of, by, and for the 1% before (and we did), you ain’t seen nothing yet. But the real-world impact of Trump isn’t what drives behavior. In politics as in markets, it’s always the story that drives our behavior, particularly the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

You know where I see this phenomenon a lot? In SEC college football. Some of the most virulent (and I mean that word in its clinical sense) fans of Alabama football have zero connection to the University of Alabama other than that they live in the same state as Nick Saban. But, like BarkingCat, they derive enormous personal empowerment and psychic benefit from a totemic connection to a powerful man. Roll Tide!

The premise is that all cooperation habits we’ve developed, our ways of getting along, are breaking down to be replaced purely with competition. If the premise were right, the rest of his argument might well follow. But the premise is wrong.

Trump found a NEW COALITION. He often speaks of the LOVE at his events. Trumpsters may compete in business, but basically we like each other and won’t tend to be all that cut-throat, most of us anyway. (Trump himself is more cut-throat than most of us. Look at how he’s dumped Giuliani and Christie now that he’s done with them. But that’s beside the point.) Within this new coalition, we are able to slough off some of the strange bedfellows we were put with before, to treat them in a more arms-length way. We have an alternative to the old coalitions the social engineers had cornered us into.

– Artichoke

Coalitions are constantly reconfiguring themselves on the basis of shared interests. There are millions of people who have always despised the right but lo, in the past few months the right has popped up as the counterculture. It’s now anti war and pro labour. It’s all about free speech and diversity of thought. The left is now the establishment and is making a big effort to crack down on the counter culture that it brands as racist and attacks with violent thugs.

Amazing really, the right is now about peace love and togetherness and the left is angry decisive and hatefilled.

I don’t hate my colleagues for having opposed Trump, but I dare not say I supported him or they would hate and ostracise me. That’s why Trump is always speaking about love. Because hate is on the other side.

Strange days. Everything is the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. People need to understand this.

– Beijing Expat

I gotta say, this was the most unexpected thread in the comments and email I received, this notion that there’s all this Love with a capital L embedded in Trump-the-man and Trump-the-movement.

I think what’s going on here is an expression of the same emotions that you see in oral histories of any protest movement. Why do people go march in the streets and stop traffic and maybe break some windows (literally or figuratively)? Because it’s FUN. There’s an enormous sense of camaraderie and excitement derived from sticking it to the Man, whether you’re in Berkeley, California in 1968 or Mobile, Alabama in 2016.

Just don’t confuse tribal attachment with Love. Because your tribal leaders, whether you’re on the left, the right, or wherever, will eventually sell you down the river. Every single time.  

I think he was trying not to offend and that’s why he could never fully approach his point. He just took swats and glancing blows. I find it offensive.

– IndyPat

Blood alone turns the wheels of history.

– IndyPat

Two brief comments from a guy who believes that “blood alone turns the wheels of history” but is offended by my tone in an email.

You’re delusional. You need to read, “The Art Of The Deal,” and “The Art Of The Comeback” to get better informed about Trump. CNN and MSNBC are not good sources. For instance Trump fixed the Wollman Rink in NY City after the city gov’t had screwed it up for 6 years at a cost of $9M in tax payer money. Trump VOLUNTEERED to fix it. He did it under schedule (given 6 months) and budget (given $3M). I would call that a win-win. It is more than a win-win, it was a game changer that traditional accounting methods don’t credit Trump with the true impact. Traditional methods would say he saved a mere $0.6M (his cost was $2.4M) because traditional accounting does not include the $9M wasted by the gov’t not to mention the 6 years.

You no doubt see that somehow as a win-lose or a lose-lose. The Trump approach broke the status quo paradigm that just was not working and was very expensive. He brings that same game to the stifling U.S. gov’t bureaucracies and international agreements. I anticipate change in those areas that you can’t begin to comprehend and with your poor accounting practices of what counts as win and what counts as a lose you are way off base. Apparently you think it is a win-win to run the U.S. international policies through the Clinton Foundation where motives are clearly self-serving rather than out in the open via the State Dept.

The depth of your ignorance on the Trump business style is breathtaking. Your assumptions on how well the system was working pre-Trump is much like Mayor Koch who screwed up the Wollman Rink for 6 years. Koch thought things were just fine. And your assumptions on Trump being win-lose or lose-lose are equally naive.

– Anonymous

The Wollman Rink. Ed Koch. Hilarious. This guy “knows” Trump by reading Trump’s books, and thinks I’m ill-informed.

 I’ve been reading Epsilon Theory for a while now. I find your material thoughtful, often brilliant, always entertaining.

Recently you have put forth a few ideas that to me seem biased and confuse cause and effect.

I think that the idea that this country has up to now been playing a politically cooperative game is quite simply wrong. For the last two presidencies there has been virtually no cooperation between the two political parties. Neither party has any inclination nor any motivation to play a politically cooperative game. This is what must be changed and this is the challenge for America. But I digress.

I believe that there are two distinct and opposing views for the future direction of the country. Let’s call these agendas. One agenda is to move toward a “Great Society”, now probably more correctly termed a “Global Great Society”. The other agenda is to remain an autonomous country with the personal freedoms, rights, and responsibilities we have always expected as Americans.

Trump is not a great divider who somehow maneuvered his way to the presidency and is ushering in political non-cooperation. Trump is the effect, the pushback against one agenda by voters with a different agenda who have come to realize that this is indeed a non-cooperative political game. The election of Trump simply illustrates that voters have come to realize that we are already deeply entrenched in a non-cooperative political game.

– Bill

I get your point, but I disagree. Trump didn’t just stumble onto a non-cooperative political game in full bloom. He’s a remarkable political entrepreneur who recognized, accelerated, and transformed the zeitgeist. I mean, look at the Republican primary. This wasn’t some grand struggle between globalist Great Society oligarchs and hardscrabble defenders of liberty (and if it were, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that Trump is the latter rather than the former). Trump rolled the field of fellow Republicans because he played the game differently. His gameplay was always Defect and never Cooperate, which was totally new, totally effective, and totally irreversible. It’s like Napoleon (another remarkable political entrepreneur) and the levée en masse (mass conscription). Once Napoleon invented the draft and put a couple of hundred thousand troops on the battlefield, every other country had to follow suit, transforming the game of international conflict forever. One thing I’ve noticed among both Trump haters and Trump lovers: they usually don’t give him enough credit. He’s more than a symptom.

You should go back to writing about investments. Your biases continue to direct you.

The move from Cooperation to Competition (in this case) has proceeded from two conservative realizations:

  1. That the veneer of cooperation maintained by liberals is false; that the Left has been competing all along. ‘Nice’, cooperative public television is about as even-handed as Pol Pot, and just as willing to dictate your life.
  2. That there CANNOT be a balance in benefits arising from the arrangement of cooperation, because of fundamentally different values.

Trump is their big F U to the perceived hypocrisy of continuing to cooperate (even if they don’t like him).

Many Europeans are arriving at the same conclusion.

– Anonymous

What was the pro-Trump “conservative realization” in the Republican primary? That he was tougher on conservative shibboleths like public television or Planned Parenthood or Great Society programs than his competitors? Please. This notion that Donald Trump is somehow the great flowering of the conservative movement is just pure revisionist hokum.

I’ve enjoyed reading your column over the years but you are seriously disappointing me lately. I can understand your left leanings make it difficult to grasp how at least one half of your readers feel, but to put something in writing as vile as the statement “So, for example, if you voted for Clinton as an affirmation of a personal identity that rejects the racism and sexism you see in Trump, your natural assumption is going to be that anyone who voted for Trump similarly did so as an affirmation of a personal identity, but one that accepts racism and sexism.”, is totally uncalled for and extremely offensive not just to President Trump, but to all of us who supported a change from the Elite Class we’ve been forced to stomach for the past 20 years.

I’m sorry you’re not comfortable now. Welcome to my world for the past twenty years.

– John

You’ve totally missed my point. I wrote this note because I am so effin’ tired of being called a racist or a sexist because I don’t think that Donald Trump is evil incarnate. There are MILLIONS of people in this country who think that I am a bad human being because I don’t hate Trump. And by the same token, there are MILLIONS of people in this country who think that I am a bad human being because I don’t think that Hillary Clinton is evil incarnate, either. That’s why I wrote this note.

I didn’t vote for Trump (nor Clinton … left prez line blank) because I think he takes us from the frying pan into the fire. But I do understand that we’ve been in a frying pan for 24+ years.

I don’t see Hitler.

– Brendan

Neither do I. I think Trump is a narcissist and an ass, not a Fascist. Like most people in the financial services world, I deal with narcissists and asses every day … they’re not Hitler clones because the only thing they’re really true-believers about is their own self-aggrandizement. Steve Bannon? There’s more than a little Big Lie and Fascism in his self-avowed “economic nationalism”, but he can’t front the band, so he’s no Hitler. Elizabeth Warren? I dunno. More the Madame Defarge type, knitting by the guillotines. Mark Zuckerberg, though, now embarked on his ‘listening tour” through America? Bears watching. Yes, I went there. Big Brother tech plus smiley-face billionaires scare me that much.

There is an old saying that really applies these days. I believe it was from Benjamin Franklin or my mother. “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.” Unfortunately people don’t let facts get in the way of the Truth.

– Anonymous

Agreed (although I thought it was MY mother).

Your note describes what happens to society, including the best educated, when philosophy disappears. And when 95 million+ people are boycotting the workforce.

Too much time on your hands? Then pay attention to Drudge, ZeroHedge, Huffington Post, etc. Or Ashley Judd, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell. Or Hannity. Supposedly smart, educated people react what’s going on as if they are watching pro wrestling.

No schooling in or acquaintance with philosophy? Then react to all these mindless, emotion-laden messages like a puppet on a string, unable to resist any impulse to react or comment. We should be dropping Meditations from helicopters.

– Orville

Helicopter Meditations instead of helicopter money? Yes, please.

Once again another good piece. I have seen the same in myself, the question I’ve been thinking is how does it end? or what comes next? You used car crashes, good analogy. I hope society is not using Takata airbags.

– Anonymous

I’m totally stealing that line.

Well done on a tough topic. I am reminded a bit of the religious discussion, where you believe that anyone who doesn’t agree with you burns in hell forever. Somehow, we have to find a way to discuss “my truth” while recognizing “your truth”.

Mick

Yes, there are clear parallels between what we’re experiencing as a society today and any religious schism. Not sure what the equivalent of the Peace of Westphalia will be for us, but that’s what it’s going to take for us to get out of this.

Started re-reading Virus of the Mind at 4:00 this am. Some dangerous “memes” are replicating themselves.

– Mike

Virus of the Mind is a 2011 collection of essays on memes, including (perhaps confusingly) the Richard Dawkins essay, “Viruses of the Mind,” that pretty much started the conversation. Required reading.

It seems to me that the Trump phenomena (there are many) are moving us towards the kind of crisis outcome that Neil Howe and William Strauss write about in The Fourth Turning. We only have to wait till the mid-20’s to see the rebuilding of the national and international organizations to allow the next flourishing. Sadly, the crisis usually culminates in a war – if it has to happen this time, let’s hope it is a small one with no big bangs!

– Neil

I get more questions and comments about The Fourth Turning than any other book. It’s also required reading, although I remain … not suspicious … but unconvinced that demographic and super-cyclical transitions are investable ideas in any meaningful way. Meaningful to me, anyway.

Something I wanted to share about Trump. He is the antithesis of orthodoxy. And this makes him dangerous given that all issues seem to be structured as binary choices between two different orthodoxies. Globalist v. Nationalist, Progressive v. Conservative, Anti-this v. Pro-that. It’s everywhere. But what I realized is that the Republican v. Democrat is not one of them. They are the same in fact.

– Sal

Spot on. I’ve written about this polarization and shift in political identification in a couple of notes. It’s not so much the growing distance between the median Democrat and the median Republican that’s worrisome for stable policy in a two-party system. It’s that voter self-identification is becoming more and more distinct from party self-identification, so that “Democrat” or “Republican” is no longer shorthand for a wide range of behaviors. The last time we saw this (and not just in the U.S.) was in the 1930s.

About 10 days ago, marveling and laughing at how everyone back home was going absolutely nuts, I had a Eureka moment. I realized that Trump viewed his Presidency as the biggest and most complicated turn-around in the history of the world. He is following the turn-around playbook exactly. Looking at what he does and how he does it, using this prism, everything falls into a logical pattern. It even becomes logically predictable.

– Anonymous

Interesting piece. I think you may be missing a subtlety with regards to Trump’s negotiating style. He tends to be a “hard out of the gate” negotiator. His process is to push the other side to the mental and emotional breaking point, then back off to assure a “deal” gets done. He has a certain intuitive ability to find out exactly how far he can push, then back off. He’s been operating this way for almost 50 yrs. in the most competitive real estate environment in the world – NYC. It’s not a game of chicken where he doesn’t care if the deal gets done, then he walks away leaving the other party so pissed-off that they refuse to ever do business with him again. If that were true, he would have pissed off everyone in NYC by now and would never get a deal done. His brash outward appearance is quite paradoxical when compared to his pragmatism. He is not a very ideological person. His ultimate goal in any transaction is to maximize efficiency. To make that omelet, you gotta break a few eggs

Now does that make him a likeable character? Hell no! I personally don’t like the guy, but I believe he is the right agent of change that was needed for the current context. In any complex dynamic system, change is only born out of extremes. We were at a point in time where the extreme of Globalism had run its course. As always happens, a counter-vailing force was introduced to send the persistence of Globalism into a bout of turbulence. Hopefully this leads to a new trend in the opposite direction, but that hasn’t materialized yet. We will deal with some anti-persistence (turbulence) for a while. That’s a good thing. Change (turbulence) is messy both intellectually and emotionally, but it’s a necessary pain we must transcend. As the turbulence subsides, a new trend will emerge and gain some of its own persistence. It’s a wild ride living on this rock hurtling 1,000 mph through space. Best bet is to hold on, and try to enjoy the ride/view.

– Mark

These are both smart emails. I put them together because they touch on the run-America-like-a-business meme. I get the appeal of that idea, and I think these readers are correct in that this is a big part of the story that Trump tells himself. I’m also sure that his negotiation style is very effective in business, particularly the NY real estate business (as Mark says, it’s straight out of a Roger Fisher “Getting to Yes” class). But I think it’s both an ineffective and highly damaging negotiation style when it comes to Madisonian political institutions, particularly when coupled with Big Brother tech and enormous concentrations of private wealth. That’s my big problem with Trump, and that’s what I mean when I say that he breaks us.

I suppose that the men we have elected as President are generally representative of our Zeitgeist. It may be at times that spirit is not very strong or clearly defined resulting in a sort of caretaker President. At other times, like now, it is pretty strong and sharply defined. Trump is a very real individual occupying the White House — and Mar a Lago, Trump Tower and whatnot. He also is the result of some sort of cumulative consensus about what matters, what should be done and how it should be done. This Zeitgeist concerns me more than the man because it amplifies him and possibly would continue on even if he doesn’t.

My fund of historic knowledge isn’t sufficient, but it is all I have. I’ve thought about how other so called developed nations that marched into totalitarianism moved back to more civil and pluralistic states. The only examples I’ve come up with where this happened peacefully are Spain and Portugal. And that took about six decades. Some might suggest Burma but I think that jury is still having lunch. Otherwise it seems that a comprehensive social collapse usually brought about by international or civil war has been required to exhaust the spirit of the totalitarian ghost and thoroughly discredit the ideas it promulgated. Germany, Italy and England (Cromwell) come to mind. Most of the others are still totalitarian.

I hope my paucity of historic information has obscured many shining examples of societies that awoke from their paranoid dreams of universal competition to remember the benefits of being nice and cooperative. I hope I’ve dramatically exaggerated the fix we are in. I hope…..

– Tom

I don’t think you’ve exaggerated the fix we’re in. Not at all. I think we’re more likely to see 21st century totalitarianism delivered with a smiley-face than a jackboot, but only because the technology of persuasion is that good. And I also think that the ultimate winners in this struggle for control is less likely to be Trump and his apologists than whoever leads the Thermidorian Reaction against Trump.

I have increased my conversation-avoidance skills (something as a libertarian / monetarists / Classical economics-leaning guy I had to learn to do to live in NYC) since the Trump election. As you note, today, everything is a trip wire.

Many years ago, I realized (1) you very, very rarely change people’s minds even a little bit, (2) I don’t really care that much if I do and (3) even if I did, it would not have any impact on changing anything in the world. Hence, I try not to talk with anyone, but a very small number of people, about, to be honest, anything that means anything as – probably should have started here – I’m tired of arguing (see points 1 – 3 as to why).

Hence, my day to day, which was always a bit of topic avoidance, has been in full-on topic-avoidance mode since the election.

I fear my exhaustion is only going to increase.

– Anonymous

People are quick to take offense (where none was intended) at the slightest indication I am not on board with their political or economic leanings. Not nearly as much “give and take”, but more “take it or leave it”. I find myself having to explain that certain economic/investment principles I hold dear are not an endorsement of Trump (or any political stripe) and that because I happen to eschew identity politics doesn’t make me a lesser human, it just means I hold that certain unintended consequences happen when following certain paths of behavior. Hard to believe that such innocuous sounding phrases can be “trigger words” for those who are seeking redress for slights no matter how small or unintended.

I’ve been called many names by people who either refuse to have rational discussions or refuse to consider views that are alternative to their own. When I explain the situation we are currently in, nationally, in terms of economic consequences (game theory is generally too far out there for the average citizen) and how I am trying to make a buck (no different than under the previous six administrations) for myself and for clients, I’m treated with borderline loathing and disdain.

There is a feral quality to the angst experienced by those who lost in this election, something I’ve not experienced before. Trying to maintain a level head and an even-handed view of the world has become its own challenge. My response has been to start at home (getting things straight with my wife about what a Trump presidency does and does not mean, news media hysteria to the contrary), then work on our circle of friends, all well-educated but deeply biased to the blue side of the ledger, both socially and politically. The experience with our friends was interesting in that they know and like me, personally, but it took a three hour dinner party and some follow up, to finally get through to them that Tweets do not policy make and reactions to same do not make good bases for decisions, economic or otherwise.

Thanks for the lucid and erudite essays. They help more than you know.

– Anonymous

I’ve anonymized these two emails as best I can because they speak for me and, I think, lots of others out there.

The last two lines in your piece, “Know Thyself” and “Treat others as you would have them treat you” are the essential wisdoms from two traditions – Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism attempts to guide a person seeking a true understanding and relationship with themselves and Christianity seeks to guide people toward a true, healthy relationship with others.

A minister I heard last summer (he was an old Episcopalian who formally taught at Harvard Divinity) lamented that we, our culture, has sunk toward the “morbid pursuit of advantage”. Which I find to be such a brilliant phrase that I have frequently recalled it. That is the Competition Game in a nutshell. Morbid – because it is ultimately deadly. Deadly to the soul and deadly to the culture.

Jon

The “morbid pursuit of advantage”. Yep, that’s our zeitgeist.

Thanks for this. It is exactly what I’ve been experiencing and have tried to formulate into words, and the words into actions.

Good lessons for us and our children, and sooner or later we will all be forced to hear it. Like it or not.

They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint. Isaiah 40. Keeps me focused on perseverance.

DL

Words into actions. Perseverance. Sounds like a plan.

Thank you for taking the time to write this and share your thoughts. After having read it only once, I don’t know what to say, but I do know what I am going to do. I am going to share this with my 14 year old daughter. I am certain that it will foster a meaningful discussion and teach us both a few things.

– Natalie

As many readers know, I have four daughters. I write Epsilon Theory for them. And now for Natalie’s daughter, too. This is how we keep the darkness at bay. One daughter at a time.

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The Day After

On episode 13 of the Epsilon Theory podcast, Dr. Ben Hunt is joined in San Antonio by Grant Williams, founder and publisher of Things That Make You Go Hmmm… and co-founder of Real Vision TV. It’s the day after the 2016 presidential election and time to explore how and why Trump won, what it might mean for markets, and where Dr. Hunt and Grant are turning their attention.


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Anthem!

On episode 11 of the Epsilon Theory podcast, Dr. Ben Hunt is joined by two of his daughters, Hannah Hunt and Harper Hunt, to find out if they have an anthem this election season: a rousing cause or political movement about which they feel passionate. They also discuss the role of government and if their difference of opinion is a result of a generational gap.

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When Narratives Go Bad

How many things served us yesterday as articles of faith, which today are fables for us?

– Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays (1580)

That same night, I wrote my first short story. It took me thirty minutes. It was a dark little tale about a man who found a magic cup and learned that if he wept into the cup, his tears turned into pearls. But even though he had always been poor, he was a happy man and rarely shed a tear. So he found ways to make himself sad so that his tears could make him rich. As the pearls piled up, so did his greed grow. The story ended with the man sitting on a mountain of pearls, knife in hand, weeping helplessly into the cup with his beloved wife’s slain body in his arms.

– Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003)

A fable for our times, the ultimate disposition of extraordinary monetary policy. Bad news is good news until bad news is all we know. Global growth is the wife.

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-atlantic The idea of negative interest rates strikes many people as odd. Economists are less put off by it. … The anxiety about negative interest rates seen recently in the media and in markets seems to me to be overdone. Logically, when short-term rates have been cut to zero, modestly negative rates seem a natural continuation; there is no clear discontinuity in the economic and financial effects of, say, a 0.1 percent interest rate and a -0.1 percent rate.

– Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, “What Tools Does the Fed Have Left?”, March 18, 2016

Bernanke is right – economists are not put off by the idea of negative rates. And that’s exactly the problem. There’s a huge discontinuity between a 0.1 percent interest rate and a -0.1 percent interest rate, but economists don’t see it because it’s a BEHAVIORAL discontinuity. Positive rates permit investing behaviors based on fundamentals and compounding. Negative rates require investing behaviors based on hope for a greater fool.

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-rainbow

My Sunday school teachers had turned Bible narrative into children’s fables. They talked about Noah and the ark because the story had animals in it. They failed to mention that this was when God massacred all of humanity.

– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (2003). The condescension of modern status quo Narrative construction is staggering. It’s a mistake to do this with kids, and it’s a bigger mistake to do this with voters and investors.

A major European power, a longtime defender of liberal democracy, pluralism and free markets, falls under the sway of a few cynical politicians who see a chance to exploit public fears of immigration to advance their careers. They create a stark binary choice on an incredibly complex issue, of which few people understand the full scope — stay in or quit the E.U.

– New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, doing his part to create a status quo protecting Narrative post-Brexit, where government “unforgivably” abdicated its responsibility by “allowing” foolish citizens who can’t possibly know their own self-interest to vote on something that’s “incredibly complex” and can only be understood by wise men … like Tom Friedman.

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-marie-antoinette He spotted the entourage and security personnel that signaled another important person’s plane. With the temperature over 103 degrees, Mr. Clinton, rather than chatting on the scorching cement, climbed aboard to say hello to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.

– New York Times “reporter” Amy Chozick, in a yeoman effort to maintain the status quo protecting Narrative. Nothing to see here folks, move along, just a sociable man trying to get out of the heat.

Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793)

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-duck-soupDuck Soup (1933)

Minister of Finance: Here is the Treasury Department’s report, sir. I hope you’ll find it clear.
Rufus T. Firefly: Clear? Huh. Why a four-year-old child could understand this report.
Rufus T. Firefly: Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it.

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-fiddlers-three

Stooges: Simple Simon met a pieman,
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
Let me taste your ware.
Said the pieman to Simple Simon,
Show me first your penny.
Said Simple Simon to the pieman:
Moe: Scram! Ya don’t get any! [throws pie in face]

You can learn a lot about political Narrative creation by looking at dominant forms of satire and comedy. Satire today is as arch and elitist as the status quo institutions it defends, in sharp contrast to the populist, slapstick comedy of the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges. I’ll bet there’s a 99% correlation between UK Leave voters and people who think Benny Hill is funny, and the same between UK Remain voters and people who think John Oliver is funny. For the Tom Friedmans of the world, the solution is simple: “educate” people that John Oliver is hilarious, but you’re a racist dope if you laugh at Benny Hill. Yeah, that’ll work.

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-hamilton

I wrote my way out of hell.
I wrote my way to revolution.
I was louder than the crack in the bell.
I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell.
I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well.
And in the face of ignorance and resistance,
I wrote financial systems into existence.
And when my prayers to God were met with indifference,
I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton (2015)

Why does “Hamilton” work? Because it’s not arch and it’s not elitist. Because it takes one of the most powerful and long-lived Narratives in modern history – the Founding Fathers – and tells the story without irony, without condescension, and without the (literal) whitewashing of other storytellers.

The Old Stories still work when you play them straight. Thank you, Lin-Manuel.

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-sandman

Choronzon: I am a dire wolf, prey-stalking, lethal prowler.
Morpheus: I am a hunter, horse-mounted, wolf-stabbing.
Choronzon: I am a horsefly, horse-stinging, hunter-throwing.
Morpheus: I am a spider, fly-consuming, eight legged.
Choronzon: I am a snake, spider-devouring, poison-toothed.
Morpheus: I am an ox, snake-crushing, heavy-footed.
Choronzon: I am an anthrax, butcher bacterium, warm-life destroying.
Morpheus: I am a world, space-floating, life-nurturing.
Choronzon: I am a nova, all-exploding… planet-cremating.
Morpheus: I am the Universe — all things encompassing, all life embracing.
Choronzon: I am Anti-Life, the Beast of Judgment. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds … of everything. Sss. And what will you be then, Dreamlord?
Morpheus: I am hope.
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (1991)

There was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below. What should he do? went the question.

And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.

The story had never made sense to him as a boy. It did now.

– Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)

The fin of any siècle is almost always a rough ride, even if we end up dreaming a better dream. In investing as in life there’s never enough time, and we are beset on all sides. Eat the strawberries.

Here’s my most basic view on everything that’s happening in the world right now, politically, economically, socially … all of it: the Fix is still in, but it’s getting harder and harder to maintain.

The Fix is the status quo, and it goes by different labels of identity depending on what you’re talking about. “European Union” is one of those labels. “Central Banking” is one. “Clinton” is another. They aren’t real things at all, but are statements of shared identity that channel our behavior in highly predictable patterns that are, in turn, highly useful to The Powers That Be, and are maintained by expressions of Common Knowledge such as “everyone knows that everyone knows that Brexit was a grievous mistake” or “everyone knows that everyone knows that low interest rates spur the economy.” Those expressions of Common Knowledge are also called Narratives, and the Narratives are dying.

And yes, I know that this all sounds suspiciously philosophical and divorced from our investing reality, but bear with me for a moment, because the punchline here is going to be that I think what I’m describing is the ONLY thing that matters for our investing reality. Our reality is not determined by the antics of the flesh-and-blood Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but by the status quo ideas and institutions represented by and threatened by the human-shaped cartoons we call “Hillary Clinton” and “Donald Trump”. To figure out what’s next for markets, we have to figure out why “Clinton” – shorthand for globalism (it’s not called The Clinton Global Initiative for nothing) and a sort of technocratic, condescending, principle-less, democracy-suspicious manner of governing – is failing. We have to figure out why Bill Clinton’s stroll across the Phoenix tarmac to chat up the Attorney General was a) reported at all, and b) greeted by derision and despair within his own party. If you don’t like my use of the label “Clinton” or if you think I’m being too political, replace it with “Brussels” or “Beijing”. It’s all the same thing, just three different shades of gray.

And I really couldn’t care less, professionally at least, what actually transpired between Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch, or what Hillary Clinton actually believed about her email security classifications. What I care deeply about, however, is how the Narrative around these events is being shaped and reshaped, because that Narrative will determine the path and outcome of every election and every market on Earth. And what I can tell you is that I am shocked by the diminishing half-life of status quo protecting Narratives, by the inability of Big Institutions and Big Money and Big Media and Big War and Big Academia to lock down an effective story that protects the State, even when their competition is primarily comprised of clowns (dangerous clowns, but clowns all the same) like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. There’s a … tiredness … to the status quo Narratives, a Marie Antoinette-ish world weariness that sighs and pouts about those darn peasants all the way to the guillotine.

We’ve seen this before. History is littered with failed Narratives, once-powerful arrays of Common Knowledge that somehow lose their ability to compel human behavior and eventually become mere myth. That’s where Narratives go to die. They become fables, stories that we chuckle at, stories that we shake our heads at and ask “did people really believe in all that?” Michel de Montaigne – who invented the essay as a literary form and was the first blogger, albeit more than 400 years before Al Gore invented the Internet – wrote about the devolution of faith to fable back in the 16th century. It’s a phenomenon as old as humanity itself. Manifest Destiny … Cultural Revolution … these were Narratives every bit as powerful in their day as European Union or Clinton in ours. Now they’re historical curiosities, something you come across on a Wikipedia bender.

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John Gast, “American Progress” (ca. 1872)

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-mao-zedong

Mao Zedong Thought poster (ca. 1970)

The rarity isn’t the Narrative that dies and fades into myth, but the Narrative that survives by re-inventing itself, by finding its words and stories repurposed and retold for a modern ear. For example, the Narrative of the American Founding Fathers is as potent today as it was 100 years ago, maybe more so, and that was before Hamilton gave it a new telling and a new power chord.

Why are the status quo protecting Narratives faltering so badly? I think it’s because status quo political and economic institutions – particularly Central Banks – have failed to protect incomes and have pushed income and wealth inequality past a political breaking point. They made a big bet: we’re going to bail-out/paper-over the banks to prevent massive losses in the financial sector, we’re going to inflate the stock market so that the household sector feels wealthier, and we’re going to make vast sums of money available for the corporate and government sectors to borrow really cheaply. And as the McKinsey chart here shows, by Q2 2014 they had largely succeeded on all counts, certainly in getting the corporate and government sectors to borrow trillions in new debt.

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-global-stock

The result, or so the thinking went, of all this pump-priming or bridge-building or whatever metaphor you please would be for all four basic sectors of the global economy – households, corporations, governments, and financial institutions – to consume more and invest more and fail never, which would in turn create a virtuous, self-sustaining cycle of risk taking, real growth, and real wealth creation.

epsilon-theory-when-narratives-go-bad-july-7-2016-john-oliver

It was a reasonable bet to make. But the bet failed. Why? There’s a book or two to write on this, but I’ll sum it up this way: you can no more force corporations to invest for growth if they don’t believe it’s safe than you can force people to watch John Oliver if they don’t think he’s funny. Sure, they’ll tell you that they think he’s funny, because everyone knows that everyone knows that John Oliver is funny, and they need to go along with the Common Knowledge to be successful social animals. But in their heart of hearts, they don’t think John Oliver is funny. Now to be clear, I’m picking on John Oliver to make a point. Personally, I think he’s funny. Some of the time. Well … kind of funny. I guess. Okay, I don’t really think he’s very funny. Sorry. And the truth is that if you paid me to watch HBO, just as Central Banks are basically paying corporations to borrow money, I’m going to watch 20 Game of Thrones re-runs before I watch a single episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, just as corporations are going to buy back stock and hoard cash 20 times more than invest in new jobs or new equipment.

So what does this have to do with incomes? Two things.

First, little of the increased corporate or government borrowing trickled down into jobs or wage income growth. We’ve all seen the charts. Real wage growth is nonexistent in the Western world. Second, to make it feasible for corporations and governments to borrow these trillions of dollars in the first place, every bit of Central Bank balance sheet expansion (buying bonds) and balance sheet “twist” (buying longer duration bonds) and expansion of allowable securities for purchase (buying more kinds of bonds) and imposition of negative rates (charging you interest if you don’t buy longish-term bonds) was designed to – you guessed it – buy more bonds and thus drive up bond prices and drive down interest rates, particularly longish-term bond prices and longish-term interest rates. That’s great if you’re an investor looking for a percentage return on your bond portfolio. That’s terrible, however, if you’re an investor looking for an income from your bond portfolio. Over the past seven years, Central Banks have rewarded the return-seeking bond buyer many times over, and they’ve done nothing but punish the income-seeking bond buyer.

Put these two income squelchers together – zero wage income growth because corporations aren’t investing for growth and less-than-zero investment income growth because Central Banks have crushed rates – and you have a vast swath of the voting public in every developed nation on Earth that (rightfully!) feels aggrieved and left behind by the gleaming economic recovery that the status quo Narrative Missionaries tout at every turn. Notably, the failure of wage income growth skews younger and Democrat/left. The failure of investment income growth skews older and Republican/right. The status quo Narratives could survive (and have many times) an assault from one wing of the electorate or the other. But from both simultaneously? It’s going to be a close call.

But here’s the even larger problem lurking in the not-so distant future, and it’s found in the behavioral WHY of return-seeking bond buyers versus income-seeking bond buyers. These are two entirely different investor populations from a behavioral perspective, with different languages and different investment genotypes. When I hear an investor or financial advisor ask, “Why in the world would I buy a Swiss bond with a -0.5% interest rate?” I know that I’m talking to an income-seeking bond buyer. The return-seeking bond buyer, on the other hand, says “Hey, if you’re right about the world, those Swiss bonds currently yielding -0.5% are going to -1.0%, which means that the price is going up. Where can I buy one of those?”

The only rational owner of a negative rate bond is a pure return seeker; there are zero income seekers holding negative rate bonds. Why is this a problem? Because income seekers will continue to own bonds even if the price goes down (for a while, anyway; at the very least, they are sticky owners). Return seekers, on the other hand, are not sticky owners at all. They will only own a bond if they think that the price is going up – meaning in this case that yields will continue to become even more negative, i.e., that there’s a greater fool (probably in the form of a Central Bank) willing to pay higher and higher prices for these income-destroying bonds – and they will sell in a heartbeat if they think this dynamic is changing.

There is, to cop a phrase from the People’s Bank of China, a massive “one-way bet” on negative rate sovereign debt today. The momentum trade has crystallized to perfection in negative rate bonds, which has grown to become a $10+ trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a T) asset class. I think it’s the most crowded trade in the world from a behavioral or investment DNA perspective, and the moment you get even a whiff of the ECB or BOJ backing down from or reaching its limit of greater foolishness, you are going to get a rush to the exit on ALL sovereign bonds that will shake global capital markets to their core. It’ll be good times till then, as it always is, and I am seeing zero signs of Central Bankers backing down from their greater foolishness. But we have once again set up the global financial system as an inverted pyramid, with a $10 trillion asset class poised on a single, solitary piece of Common Knowledge —– what everyone knows that everyone knows. In 2008, the $10 trillion asset class of residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) was entirely based on the Common Knowledge that it was impossible to have a nationwide decline in U.S. home prices. When that Narrative failed, the entire inverted pyramid came crashing down. In 2016, the $10 trillion asset class of negative rate sovereign bonds is entirely based on the Common Knowledge that there is no limit to the greater foolishness of Central Banks. If this Narrative fails, the entire inverted pyramid will come crashing down again. Hence my punchline: monitoring this and related status quo protecting Narratives (like the concerted effort to paint Brexit as a one-off blunder, just like Bear Stearns was painted in 2008) is the only thing that really matters for our investment reality.

What to do? Convexity, convexity, convexity. Our portfolios should minimize the maximum risk the world actually presents, not maximize the reward our crystal ball models predict. Timing, timing, timing. We need to pay attention to what matters, and right now that’s all policy and all Narrative all the time. In a negative rate world, you’ve got to think in terms of catalysts, not “stocks for the long haul”. And one more thing. To paraphrase Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, if a four-year-old can’t understand what you’re doing in your portfolio, don’t do it. For me, that means real assets and real yield, fractional ownership in real companies with real cash flows from real economic activity with real people. You know, what a stock market used to mean before it became a Central Bank casino. For more on all these points, I’d point you directly to the recent Epsilon Theory notes “Hobson’s Choice and “Cat’s Cradle.

I know that this all comes across as very negative about the world and our investing future, and that’s because it is. To use a poker analogy, we were dealt some bad cards, the Central Banks waaay overplayed the hand, and now we’ve got to figure out how to extricate ourselves without losing our entire stake. But is this a hopeless situation? No. The most important lesson I ever learned from my mentors in this business is this: always live to fight another day. We can do that. It won’t be fun and it won’t be pretty and we’ll have some scars to show for it, but we can do that. The useful lesson from the Biblical Flood Narrative isn’t a pleasant fable about Noah saving the cute and cuddly animals. The useful lesson is that hubris must be confronted, hope is always present, and that preparation and honest actions will see us through any storm. Yes, we can do that.

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