Bubblenomics

Some people will read this and say, “No inflation, no problem.” But that completely misses the point of asset price volatility and distortions of resource allocations. People complain about inequality, but then ignore these policies that aggravate inequality while making unequal outcomes rather arbitrary. In the meantime we live in a far more volatile and precarious world.

The Federal Reserve’s everything bubble

Desmond Lachman, May 19, 2020

Good economic policymaking resembles good medical practice. In much the same way as a skilled doctor’s effective prescription for a disease rests on an accurate diagnosis of the illness, so too a wise economic policymaker’s effective crisis policy response depends on a comprehensive understanding of the crisis’s underlying causes.

One has to regret Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s seemingly partial diagnosis of our present daunting economic challenge, especially considering his key role in defusing the crisis. In Powell’s view, our economic predicament has nothing to do with the possibility that years of ultra-easy U.S. monetary policy might have contributed to the creation of worldwide asset and credit market bubbles. Rather, he seems to believe that our economic challenge is solely the result of the supply side shock delivered to the economy by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Following the bursting of the U.S. housing and credit market bubble in 2008, it took the U.S. economy some six years to regain its pre-crisis employment level. Dismissing any notion that the coronavirus pandemic might now be bursting asset and credit market bubbles of the Fed’s creation, Powell believes that this time around we could have a quicker economic recovery than we did following the 2008-2009 Great Recession. 

Indeed, Powell believes that the U.S. economy could fully recover by the end of 2021, notwithstanding the very much deeper economic recession that we are now experiencing than in 2008-2009. 

Despite Mr. Powell’s assertions to the contrary, over the past decade the Fed, along with the world’s other major central banks, created a global asset and credit market bubble. They did so by buying a staggering cumulative $10 trillion in low-risk government and private sector bonds with the aim of forcing investors to take on more risk and to stretch for yield. The net result of that policy was the creation of a global equity and housing market boom as well as the major distortion of world credit markets.

One indication of the world equity price bubble was the very high valuation to which the U.S. equity market reached before its large coronavirus-induced correction earlier this year. Measured by the cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio, before the pandemic’s onset U.S. equity valuations reached lofty levels experienced only three times in the past hundred years. Meanwhile, numerous housing markets around the world, including those in several large U.S. cities, had price-to-income ratios that exceeded those reached at the 2006 peak of the earlier housing market bubble.

More troubling yet, the world’s major central banks have distorted global credit markets in a major way, as investors were encouraged to take on excessive risk. One indication of such credit market excess was the more than doubling in the risky U.S. leveraged-loan market to its present level of around $1.3 trillion. Other indications were the approximate doubling over the past decade of lending to the emerging market economies and the very low interest rates at which highly indebted countries like Italy were able to finance themselves. 

A key point to which Powell is choosing to turn a blind eye is the great likelihood that the very depth of the current economic recession, which is almost certain to be the worst experienced in the past 90 years, will burst asset price bubbles around the globe and make it all the more difficult for debtors to service their loans. This will be particularly the case for the travel, hospitality and entertainment sectors of the world economy that are bound to be particularly hard hit, at least until a COVID-19 vaccine is made widely available. If a wave of debt defaults and bankruptcies were to occur, we could see real stress in the world financial system. [The only option the Fed has at this point is to ramp up ZIRP and QE4ever as well as underwrite US Treasury borrowing.]

Another key point that Powell seems to overlook is the likelihood that the global economic recession could trigger both another round of the European sovereign debt crisis and yet one more major emerging market economic crisis. In this respect, it is hardly encouraging that the European economic recession shows every sign of being deeper than that in the United States and that Europe is still struggling to fashion a united fiscal response to the recession. Nor is it encouraging that capital is being withdrawn from the emerging market economies at a record pace and that a number of emerging market currencies already appear to be in free fall.     

To his credit, Powell responded both boldly and promptly to the initial phases of the current economic crisis. Hopefully, he stands ready to do more of the same at the first signs of real stress in the global financial system. If not, we can be sure that our full economic recovery will be delayed until well after the end of 2021. 

[Not sure how writing more trillion$ blank checks really is a solution.]

Desmond Lachman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was formerly a deputy director in the International Monetary Fund’s Policy Development and Review Department and the chief emerging market economic strategist at Salomon Smith Barney.


The problem we see here is that the world’s economies, made up of the world’s citizens, have been dangerously pushed out on the risk curve. Meltdowns of inflated asset values are sure to occur and each one means we are less able to respond to excess risk and loss. The USA is in an envious position because its control of the world currency means all those dollars come back to the US economy to buy real assets, so those who own those assets (Americans) are far more fortunate than those who want to buy them. But this only means more economic and political volatility across the globe.

Donut Holes?

Watched a TED video by the woman who developed this idea of doughnut economics (see book). Seems to be all the rage among the save the planet crowd.

TED Talk Kate Raworth

Interesting, but I think she’s tilting at a straw man. This is a measurement problem, not a mechanistic problem. First, GDP is a very blunt instrument for measuring improvements to the human condition, but it’s the only yardstick the politicians and policymakers have and they are judged based on these metrics. Same with U6 and CPI and PPI and poverty, etc. We get GPD numbers every week of the year and our information channels repeat them as grade reports.

Second, Ms. Raworth uses the word growth as a proxy for measuring change and consuming energy resources. Not all growth or GDP measurement is expansion of goods and services. Recycling is a measure of growth; developing alternative sources of energy is a measure of growth. What we are truly dealing with is how to manage positive CHANGE. When we mismanage change, we get negative GDP growth rates. When we manage it productively, we get positive changes in GDP, among other measurements of life quality, like leisure time and cultural and technological innovation.

Economics is the fine art of managing change through exchange. So we need better measurements that include those subjective values that are not so easy to measure.
Everything else here is fantastic hyperbole, saving the planet and all that…dollars to donuts?

Social Behavior and the Coronavirus Pandemic

If you’re like me and follow the mainstream as well as social media, you’ve likely been inundated with information about the coronavirus pandemic, with many different data interpretations and conflicting claims based on these interpretations. The simple graphic below, called “flattening the curve,” seems to be the dominant visual for explaining the current public healthcare issues and provides a good starting point.

Flattening the curve.

The graph was created by disease specialists at the CDC and has been spread widely by medical professionals, government officials, and non-government agencies. It visually represents the logic behind the political response to the crisis and the strategy to slow the spread of the virus. This is critical to managing the capacity limitations of healthcare resources like hospitals, drug therapies, and healthcare personnel. However, it is a theoretical model based on exponential pandemic dynamics; it is not a graph of actual empirical data. It is meant to educate, not report.

Unfortunately, the graph has been adopted by public media as a projection of “likely” real-time scenarios under various assumptions, focusing completely on the rose-colored part of the graph. According to this worst-case scenario, without strict adherence to isolation protocols the coronavirus is projected to spread exponentially through the population, placing an impossible burden on healthcare resources. The problem is that the empirical data so far does not seem to be supporting this worst-case scenario.

Let’s not get derailed here: the virus outbreak is a serious public health threat and a deadly threat to the elderly and immune-compromised. Our policies should foremost target the security of these groups. In this respect, the model is valuable and instructive, but not so much for actual health outcomes to the majority of the population. From the macro point of view, we have little idea how many of those people infected will require medical intervention and how extensive that intervention might be. In other words, infection rates may not impact health care capacity as depicted here. We also have little feel for how high or low that spike might be, or the magnitude of the y-axis – is it thousands, millions, or billions? 20%, 50% or 90%? Many media interpretations of existing data choose a scale that looks like we’re shooting up to the top of that rosy peak when we are really barely past the initial stage way, way down near the floor of the x-axis (see next graph). The projections repeatedly fail to project for interventions and behavior changes.

Where are we?

Also, as we discover more and more people have contracted the virus yet show no serious symptoms, we are missing any projection of herd immunity. Immunity gradually reduces the ability of the virus to find new hosts within the existing population so it gradually dies out.

What is valuable about the meme is the implication for how the public should adapt social behavior now to reduce the transmission rate of the contagion. Physical or social distancing is at this time imperative. Essentially this is less about biology and more about social behavior informed by biology. It strikes me that most of our media information is overly focused on very uncertain medical data given credibility by concerned medical experts. The problem is that the experts are shrouded in uncertainty and thus must err on the side of extreme caution. In hindsight most of this speculation will likely turn out to be fictional. But the effect will be real, and this takes us back to social behavior.

Some reports opine that this coronavirus is just a bad flu. If one is looking at medical data, I would tend to agree. But looking at social behavior, I would obviously disagree. What is driving social behavior, which will be measured in political policies and economic results, relates to the nature of this pandemic, not the pathogen itself. The coronavirus strikes at the heart of our instinctual behavior in the face of existential threats.

The real problem we face is that 1) the threat is invisible, 2) seems to be highly transmissible and somewhat random, 3) offers no preventive therapy (vaccine) or 4) sure treatment options or cures. Thus, 5) we feel little sense of control over what might be a serious existential threat. What this combination of characteristics does is incite a strong psychological reaction to uncertainty, risk, and potential loss, leading to exaggerated reactions to very low probabilities.

We know from behavioral science that the survival instinct causes behavior to respond to these contextual parameters. Humans, like all sentient beings, are risk and loss averse. Loss pertains to the nature of the threat, such as will I lose my job, or my savings and pension, or the ultimate existential threat: will I get sick and die? Risk is a probability function of the uncertainty of that loss. As the threat level rises (reported death counts and mortality rates) people become more fearful. Then, as uncertainty blankets us like a fog, the anxiety level rises. This survival response is perfectly rational for any organism trying to stay alive.

The important thing to note is that when the probability of loss increases and the consequence becomes more serious, people tend to become risk-seeking. In other words, faced with a likely existential threat, people take more behavioral risks than would be rational in the absence of that threat. We see this in those apocalyptic movies, when widespread hysteria and panic leads to chaos and deadly conflict, where more people die from the chaos than from the threat.

Individual behavior is compounded by irrational social behavior. An example is the panic buying of paper products, where some people, pressed to explain their behavior, have only offered the justification that everybody else was hoarding paper, so they were too. This suggests that what may not be categorically much different than a bad flu medically has the potential to turn into a global social and economic crisis.

So why is this reaction to coronavirus different than the Asian bird flu, Ebola, SARS, MERS or H1N1? The coronavirus seems to have a much higher and faster transmission rate than these previous pathogens and thus it has spread world-wide much faster. This is likely because it is highly asymptomatic while it is contagious and spreading. It also may be far more benign. But we don’t know why it is asymptomatic in some people and severely life-threatening for others. This uncertainty and randomness heighten our fear of the threat.  

There is something else going on with the present pandemic that is aggravating the crisis. Because the virus has easily spread rather quickly, our global information media has gone into overdrive, especially social media. We know that social media is mostly driven by emotional reactions to uncertain facts, what we now call fake news. The sad reality is that the traditional print and broadcast media have also had to succumb to sensationalism and emotions in order to stay in business. Remember the editor’s dictum: If it bleeds, it leads. This presents the danger of reporting one random healthy young person who dies of COVID-19 complications instead of the thousands of others who contract the virus and seem unaffected. Our media, willingly or unwillingly, by focusing on infection and death counts taken out of context may be contributing to the social psychological effects driving this pandemic crisis. Worst-case scenarios painted by the medical experts and spread by the media are doing the same.

I suspect officials may sincerely believe projecting the worst-case scenario is necessary to “scare people straight” to get them to change behavior. But social behavior indicates that fear can become more viral than the virus, increasing the threats to social stability, safety, and security.

If one doubts this, imagine what would happen if a vaccine or cure were discovered tomorrow. Most of the world would return to normal the next day, not because the pathogen was eradicated any more than the seasonal flu, but because our fear would disappear.

The Global Debt Bubble

I reprint this Bloomberg article in full because it lays out all the ways global policymakers have increased the risks of a global debt-driven correction, sometimes called a depression.

These policymakers have decided that since there is no shortage of global labor, there is little chance of cost-push inflation. But this ignores the very real effect of excess credit, which is the relative price changes reflected in real assets, such as land, real estate, and the control of Big Data. These assets are being more and more concentrated in fewer hands – it’s like a return to feudalism where a few lords owned all the productive assets and the laboring peasants were forced to work for subsistence living.

So, the real question is which comes first: a global financial collapse or a political revolution? Neither are smart risks for public policy and democratic governance.

My comments in bold red.

The Way Out for a World Economy Hooked On Debt? More Debt

By Enda Curran

December 1, 2019, 4:00 AM PST Updated on December 2, 2019, 12:12 AM PST

    • Cheap borrowing costs have sent global debt to another record
    • Options to revive economic growth require even more borrowing
    • Zombie companies in China. Crippling student bills in America. Sky-high mortgages in Australia. Another default scare in Argentina.

A decade of easy money has left the world with a record $250 trillion of government, corporate and household debt. That’s almost three times global economic output and equates to about $32,500 for every man, woman, and child on earth.

Global Debt

Much of that legacy stems from policymakers’ deliberate efforts to use borrowing to keep the global economy afloat in the wake of the financial crisis. Rock bottom interest rates in the years since has kept the burden manageable for most, allowing the debt mountain to keep growing.

Now, as policymakers grapple with the slowest growth since that era, a suite of options on how to revive their economies share a common denominator: yet more debt. From Green New Deals to Modern Monetary Theory, proponents of deficit spending argue central banks are exhausted and that massive fiscal spending is needed to yank companies and households out of their funk. [But we can’t ignore the fact that central banks are largely funding this deficit spending by buying bonds. If they can no longer expand their balance sheets, the private sector would have to buy this excess debt at much higher yields.]

Fiscal hawks argue such proposals will merely sow the seeds for more trouble. But the needle seems to be shifting on how much debt an economy can safely carry.

More than a decade after the financial crisis, the amount of combined global government, corporate and household debt has reached $250 trillion.

One solution proposed by policymakers? More debt pic.twitter.com/KVrv3CdlW1

[Debt growth is an exponential function – thus as we increase debt, we have to increase it at an ever greater rate just to keep the game going.]

Central bankers and policymakers from European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde to the International Monetary Fund have been urging governments to do more, arguing it’s a good time to borrow for projects that will reap economic dividends.

“Previous conventional wisdom about advanced economy speed limits regarding debt to GDP ratios may be changing,” said Mark Sobel, a former U.S. Treasury and International Monetary Fund official. “Given lower interest bills and markets’ pent-up demand for safe assets, major advanced economies may well be able to sustain higher debt loads.”

Rising expectations of fiscal stimulus measures across the globe have contributed to a pick-up in bond yields, spurred by signs of a bottoming in the world’s economic slowdown. Ten-year Treasury yields climbed back above 1.80% Monday, while their Japanese counterparts edged up closer to zero.

A constraint for policymakers, though, is the legacy of past spending as pockets of credit stress litter the globe.

At the sovereign level, Argentina’s newly elected government has promised to renegotiate a record $56 billion credit line with the IMF, stoking memories of the nation’s economic collapse and debt default in 2001. Turkey, South Africa, and others have also had scares.

Debt:GDP

[The trend of total debt/GDP tells us whether are deficit spending is paying off. When it gets too high, most of our GDP will need to service existing debt loads. The more likely scenario is widespread defaults that ricochet through the global economy.]

As for corporate debt, American companies alone account for around 70% of this year’s total corporate defaults even amid a record economic expansion. And in China, companies defaulting in the onshore market are likely to hit a record next year, according to S&P Global Ratings.

So-called zombie companies — firms that are unable to cover debt servicing costs from operating profits over an extended period and have muted growth prospects — have risen to around 6% of non-financial listed shares in advanced economies, a multi-decade high, according to the Bank for International Settlements. That hurts both healthier competitors and productivity.

As for households, Australia and South Korea rank among the most indebted.

The debt drag is hanging over the next generation of workers too. In the U.S., students now owe $1.5 trillion and are struggling to pay it off.

Even if debt is cheap, it can be tough to escape once the load gets too heavy. While solid economic growth is the easiest way out, that isn’t always forthcoming. Instead, policymakers have to navigate balances and tradeoffs between austerity, financial repression where savers subsidize borrowers, or default and debt forgiveness.

“The best is to grow out of it gradually and consistently, and it is the solution to many but not all episodes of current indebtedness,” said Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser to Allianz SE.

Gunning for Growth

Policymakers are plowing on in the hope of such an outcome. [Hope for the best? In the meantime, elites’ ability to manage a crisis of their own making is more secure.]

To shore up the U.S. recovery, the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates three times this year even as a tax cut funded fiscal stimulus sends the nation’s deficit toward 5% of GDP. Japan is mulling fresh spending while monetary policy remains ultra easy. And in what’s described as Britain’s most consequential election in decades, both major parties have promised a return to public spending levels last seen in the 1970s.

China is holding the line for now as it tries to keep a lid on debt, with a drip-feed of liquidity injections rather than all-out monetary easing. On the fiscal front, it has cut taxes and brought forward bond sale quotas, rather than resort to the spending binges seen in past cycles.

What Bloomberg’s Economists Say…

“When a slump does come, as surely it will, monetary policy won’t have all the answers — fiscal policy will contribute, but with limitations.”

— Bloomberg Economics Chief Economist Tom Orlik

As global investors get accustomed to a world deep in the red, they have repriced risk — which some argue is only inflating a bubble. Around $12 trillion of bonds have negative yields.

Anne Richards, CEO of Fidelity International, says negative bond yields are now of systemic concern.

“With central bank rates at their lowest levels and U.S. Treasuries at their richest valuations in 100 years, we appear to be close to bubble territory, but we don’t know how or when this bubble will burst.”

The IMF in October said lower yields are spurring investors such as insurance companies and pension funds “to invest in riskier and less liquid securities,” as they seek higher returns.

“Debt is not a problem as long as it is sustainable,” said Alicia Garcia Herrero, chief Asia-Pacific economist at Natixis SA in Hong Kong, who previously worked for the European Central Bank and Bank of Spain. “The issue is whether the massive generation of debt since the global financial crisis is going to turn out to be profitable.”


 

Okay, so we know that public debt never gets paid back, just rolled over with new debt. The question, as Ms. Herrero says, is whether this debt leverage is productive or not; does it make our lives better in material and non-material terms; will it help us tackle non-monetary challenges like climate change?

Credit constraints are those that penalize unproductive investments in favor of productive ones before we know which is which. The elimination of credit constraints means we are just throwing money at the wall to see what sticks, and whoever gets those credits is largely arbitrary. The whole strategy is driving global inequality, so the question again is which comes first: financial collapse or political revolution?

Oh yeah, Merry Christmas!

Real Estate Gold

This article published in Bloomberg should give us pause, because it’s not only in China where real estate leverage has become too big to fail. (And our POTUS is a real estate magnate.) In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, real estate portfolios were not allowed to fail and Fed credits were used to protect excessive investment. Now we have a stark divide in the fundamental values of real estate versus the inflated prices of a product that is tax-subsidized and priced solely on the margin. As a speculative trading asset rather than basic shelter, housing has now become the tail that wags the dog of our lives. This is pretty insane, and plants us back in the age of land feudalism.

The problem, which is not only a US problem but a global one, is excess cheap credit that has led to a generational credit-debt bubble in the private and public sectors. It promotes the imbalance between China and the rest of the world and drives inequality world-wide. It reflects coordinated central bank policy under the leadership of the US Federal Reserve that was made possible by the untethering of fiat currencies – giving governments world-wide discretion over the value of their currencies.  We’ve tried to grow faster than our productivity warrants. It has greatly increased systemic risk, price volatility, and uncertainty over price signals. For example, what is a house really worth? $100K of materials or $5 million based on the marginal value of land? Or how much somebody can borrow against it?

Ultimately, the value of scarce land will have to be taxed accordingly, an idea put forth by Henry George more than a century ago.

Evergrande Is Too Big to Fail Thanks to Its Huge Land Holdings

China’s Most Indebted Firm Is Too Big to Fail

This property developer is borrowing even more to expand into unlikely projects, such as electric vehicles. But there’s a method to the madness.

There’s a lot working against China’s most indebted property firm. China Evergrande Group is sitting on $113.7 billion in debt and its core profit fell 45% in the first half of the year. Real-estate growth is slowing, with banks under orders to curb home loans. President Xi Jinping’s refrain that houses are for living in, not speculation, has been cropping up more frequently. 

Time to rein things in, right? Not Evergrande. The company, whose portfolio already includes theme parks and a football club, now wants to become the world’s biggest electric-vehicle maker in the next three to five years. It’s burning through precious cash – 160 billion yuan ($22 billion) – to build factories in Guangzhou. 

Investors are voting on this folly with their feet. The company’s shares have fallen 30% this year, making Evergrande the worst performer among Hong Kong-listed Chinese developers. The property firm’s borrowing costs are among the highest in the offshore dollar market and its bonds are tumbling.  

For anyone gawking at Evergrande’s improbably ballooning debt load, just waiting for the doomsday clock to strike midnight, there’s a valuable lesson: This firm is too big to fail. Evergrande is one of China’s biggest developers – with projects in 226 cities – and its billionaire founder, Hui Ka Yan, is the country’s third-richest man. With property accounting for about a quarter of China’s gross domestic product, any instability in the sector has proven too much for Beijing to stomach. Time and again, the government has reluctantly reopened the credit spigots to boost a flagging real-estate market. Just look at 2008, 2011 and 2014. [As we have in the US, leading to a big gap between those who own real estate and those who rent or would like to buy.]

Crucially, Evergrande has China’s largest land reserve, with 276 million square meters (905 million square feet) of gross floor area, according to Citigroup Inc. While the developer has a lot of exposure to China’s smaller cities, where growth is slowing rapidly, it also dominates redevelopment in big, rich cities such as Shenzhen, where profit margins are robust. 

Land is scarce in Shenzhen, and urban renewal – demolishing old, low-density buildings to make way for high-rise apartments – is widely seen as the answer to the city’s growing population. These projects also give Evergrande access to cheap lots, which helps keep its land costs among the lowest of its peers, according to Toni Ho, an analyst at RHB Securities. If the protests in Hong Kong accelerate China’s plans to make Shenzhen the the next “global cosmopolis,” according to state-run Xinhua News Agency, Evergrande could be in a plum position.

The company’s diversification into electric cars is sure to bleed money for years, and competition is getting stiffer. During his visit to China last week, Elon Musk managed to score a tax break for Tesla Inc. But carrying out one of Xi’s signature projects has its perks: For example, clean-car manufacturers can get land much more cheaply from local governments than real-estate developers. That helps explain why a host of firms including Country Garden Holdings Co. and Agile Group Holdings Ltd. are jumping in.

Being in Beijing’s favor and securing low-cost inputs is no bad thing for a cash-strapped developer like Evergrande. Maybe there’s a method to the madness of its wild spending.

Social Media and Social Networks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

View at Medium.com

Our obsession with our mobile phones has distracted us from the essential awareness of where we are and where we are going.

 

In our Information Age, social media engagement has become ubiquitous, and contagious. According to recent surveys, internet users are now spending an average of 2.3 hours per day on social networking and messaging platforms (the most popular being Facebook and YouTube).

This proliferation of online social networks (OSNs) has had both good and bad consequences. In What Technology Wants, technology author Kevin Kelly gushes with the promise of social connection:

Right before my eyes, I saw online networks connect people with ideas, options, and other people they could not possibly have met otherwise. Online networks unleashed passions, compounded creativity, amplified generosity.[i] (italicsmine)

In Alone Together, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle examines how technology, in turn, shapes our social interaction:

People love their new technologies of connection. They have made parents and children feel more secure and have revolutionized business, education, scholarship, and medicine. …They have changed how we date and how we travel. The global reach of connectivity can make the most isolated outpost into a center of learning and economic activity. The word “apps” summons the pleasure of tasks accomplished on mobile devices, some of which, only recently, we would not have dreamed possible…[ii]

Nonetheless, we’ve witnessed how this wondrous technology also imposes a Faustian bargain, with implications for our social relationships, mental health and happiness, and our public discourse. Turkle presents a large body of evidence that portrays the tech generation as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely. We’ve discovered that digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the commitment of friendship. We are drawn to the comfort of connection without the demands of intimacy. Facebook offers us hundreds of “friends,” but not a single one to confide in. What’s happening, Turkle discovered, is that as we expect more from technology, we expect less from each other.

On the societal level, social media has come under fire for promoting political propaganda and fostering malicious or even violent behavior, polarizing democratic societies into uncompromising bubbles. The negatives are starting to outweigh the positives.

In order to better manage this technology, we need to investigate the positive and negative effects of OSNs so we can enhance the good, minimize the bad, and, if possible, eliminate the ugly. Let us start by summarizing these mixed effects:

1. The Good: social media has enriched opportunities for social connection and genuine friendship across distances, much as the telephone did a century ago. It has enabled decentralized peer-to-peer information sharing that can be essential during times of crisis. Social media has increased the potential for serendipity in social relationships and social participation. Finally, social networking has aided in building more robust communities among like-minded users and also enabled connections across diverse groups.

2. The Bad: social media engagement is often contagious (and is designed to be that way) and can become addicting. This can lead to asocial behavior with personal narcissism and status seeking. As a substitute for real human connection, it can lead to emotional isolation and severe anxiety due to fear of missing out (FOMO). Public metrics, like the number of friends, can contribute to feelings of inferiority and despair. Social networking can erect barriers as well as break them down.

3. The Ugly: the competition for status on social networks can lead to malicious gossip and bullying. Emotional isolation increases the potential for violent anti-social behavior, such as that promoted by the Unabomber. Social media has generated misinformation and political propaganda on a large scale, diminishing our trust in social institutions and enabling malignant actors to organize their mischief. Lastly, it has empowered the invasion of our personal privacy, often through our own ignorance of the dangers.

What separates the good from the bad and ugly? Largely it is the nature of the content and the context in which it is shared. Much of the deterioration of online content and interaction can be attributed to the advertising revenue models of the platforms, where the business incentives of the platforms do not align well with the social needs and wants of users. Social media giants like Facebook and YouTube generate huge advertising revenues from free, user-generated content. It is not in their interest to guard user privacy, but rather to promote all data sharing to monetize. They reap no meaningful benefit by costly monitoring of users or content, so their platforms have become playgrounds for trolls, flamers, bullies, hackers, propagandists, and digital media addicts.

Turkle observes that the psychological logic of social networks can be stated thus, “I share, therefore I am.” This is a degenerate form of René Descartes’s famous proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” One might smartly identify one major problem of social networking as “I share before I think.” There’s certainly some truth to that, but the psychology goes deeper than this. Turkle argues that we have used OSN technology to alleviate social isolation, but also to avoid the emotional intimacy that often makes social relationships uncomfortable, but ultimately rewarding.

Many who have felt this odd tension have disengaged completely, as reflected in attrition rates for OSNs. But with so many benefits, the public will not abandon social networking; rather, we must and will transform it. Consider the fact that Facebook is actually a centralized global gossip network. Even given the benefits of gossip for monitoring social behavior in small communities, a global gossip network makes no sense from a social human psychology perspective.

So, how do we promote good effects and weed out the bad effects? First, the sharing of content becomes meaningless if the actual content is devoid of meaning. The blessing and curse of the Information Age is Too Much Information. Given the constraints of the time and energy required for attention, why are we distracting ourselves with nonsense on social media?

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of psychological needs, we find the pinnacle of self-actualization occupied by moral thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. These provide meaning to our inner lives. At the next stage down we find self-esteem, confidence, and mutual respect, while at the third level we find social connection and belonging. Below these are the crucial stages of personal security and physiological needs. The first four stages of human needs are necessary, but the meaning of our lives is attained through the final stage at the top of the pyramid. One might expand Descartes’s proposition to: “I think, I create, I imagine; therefore I am.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

 

Meaningful information is valued more than trivia, but what is meaningful? That depends somewhat on the context of social interaction. Friendships tend to focus on highly personal and particular information and content, i.e., photos of your dog or last night’s homemade casserole. Larger scale networks lean toward more universal ideas, content, or information. Huge centralized platforms, what we might call Big Social, are seeing less engagement, with a wide range of new niche platforms stealing the attention and devotion of people who prefer decentralized and peer-to-peer interactions outside a system of attention control based on advertising. These niche competitors will be less focused on sharing and more on what is being shared and with whom. To promote meaning in human interaction social media needs to be more about imagining, creating and collaborating. Such connections are more in tune with the human than the technological. These activities enhance our mental health rather than distract us. Psychological studies show that creative stimulation and interaction can help reverse debilitating addictions.

Who we share meaning with, in what context, is becoming more crucial to online engagement. User anonymity provides cover for anti-social behavior as anonymous users can do and say anything without being sanctioned or censored. Fake user accounts lead to fake information and uninhibited abuse of community trust. It’s like going to a masquerade ball and entrusting your valuables to masked actors who cannot be identified. The loss of privacy in the context of meaningful social interaction is secondary to building trust and reputational capital through accountability, which makes privacy less salient.

The challenge for the future of social networking, as it moves away from Big Social into smaller niche platforms, is whether we can use technology to avoid segregating ourselves into smaller tribal communities that inhibit interaction with a world larger than our provincial concerns, while at the same time retaining the human scale of social interaction.

Appropriate technological and business model design should be able to solve this problem because technology tackles the tasks of searching, filtering, sorting, connecting, and reconnecting far more efficiently than serendipitous face-to-face social interaction. A good example is online dating, with the stark comparison between eHarmony and Tinder. Social networking should help us coordinate rather than segregate. It should enable us to harmonize our social interactions in a positive direction, according to complex matrices of particular interests, while also allowing us to filter out unwanted noise and negativity.

This networking challenge is best addressed by empowering human assets within the network, rather than relying solely on mechanistic algorithms based on network metrics. As Turkle says, real communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Also by real people. Online connectivity relaxes the physical proximity constraint, but the shared human imperatives of socialization remain, even when we connect through a computer interface.

Looking into the future of social media and social networking, we can summarize the aforementioned qualities it will likely need to embody:

1. The future will be decentralized. We have little need for a centralized global gossip network. Rather platforms will be built on peer-to-peer interactions, which means decentralized control;

2. Content matters. Content is valued by participants in the social community. Content that does not enhance the value of the network needs to be screened out, by users and/or the design of the network;

3. No anonymity. Community networks will reward reputational capital and reciprocity through verified identities, so there is a negative carry cost to anonymity. This, along with potential sanctions, helps minimize threats by bad actors;

4. User engagement in managing network dynamics is essential. User control not only encourages participation and engagement in the community, but it also places responsibility and accountability for engagement in the right hands. The human element is critical;

5. Scale matters, especially for social engagement. Everything else is broadcasting. Larger sharing networks can be filtered and segregated into smaller entities for engagement, without losing connection to the larger community.

The future will be better.

 


[i] Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants.

[ii] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together. Turkle also presents her views in a compelling TED Talk.

You Say Po-tay-to and I Say Po-tah-to!

Our political divide between left and right is most often characterized by the media as an ideological battle between liberalism and conservatism. Yet the meanings of these ideological terms are too often misinterpreted and mischaracterized – mostly by the opposing point of view – in order to fit a preferred political narrative. For those on the left, liberalism implies tolerance and empathy, while conservatism connotes bigotry and selfishness. For those on the right, liberalism infers intellectual naiveté and moral degeneracy, while conservatism assumes moral rectitude and time-tested reason. A clear understanding of political ideology can be useful; false stereotypes much less so. We should unpackage these terms as they are used in the popular vernacular to understand just how unhelpful and misguided they have become.

The etymological root of liberal is liber, or free, as it pertains to individual human rights and freedoms. Merriam-Webster offers this definition: a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (i.e., freedom) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties. Liberalism shares the same root as liberty and it would be difficult to find an American conservative who was not attuned to the universal idea of individual liberty.

Likewise, the root of conservative is conservare, meaning to preserve. Merriam-Webster offers the following definition: a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change. If one assumes the evolutionary perspective, it would be difficult to find a society, American liberal or otherwise, that did not seek to preserve certain time-worn traditions in the interests of stability and self-preservation. We should also note that conservatism shares the same word root as conservation, so nature weighs in on this meaning as well.

So where did we get the idea that these ideologies are opposed? Merriam-Webster is partly culpable by posing these ideologies as antonyms but, as we will discover, they should be mostly viewed as useful complements.

Jonathan Haidt, in his psychological studies summarized in The Righteous Mind, explains how our ideological leanings can be expressed through complex moral matrices, where differences arise in moral interpretations and priorities. Haidt cites six moral precepts: 1) care; 2) liberty; 3) fairness; 4) loyalty; 5) authority; 6) sanctity. Haidt results show how liberals privilege the first three, while conservatives employ a mix of all six, giving additional weight to loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

One should read Haidt’s book to understand the nuances of these moral matrices, but the major divergence between our conceptions of liberal and conservative seem to revolve around the moral values of care and fairness. Haidt argues that everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds.: “On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.” Implicit in these interpretations is the idea that consequences follow actions, but some consequences are rooted in contextual factors that are outside the individual’s control, such as educational opportunity. The takeaway from Haidt’s studies is that these moral matrices are hardly set in concrete and can be easily reconciled through a fuller understanding of the different emphases. They do not really divide us into red vs. blue.

The other dichotomy posed by our definitions of liberal and conservative is the implication that conservatives are intolerant and resistant to change while liberals seek to remove institutional barriers to change. Conservatives may be guilty of saying ‘don’t fix what ain’t broke,’ while liberals may be guilty of forcing change without due regard to the uncertainty inherent in change. But there is a way of reconciling these two approaches to inevitable change.

All societies embrace change to a certain degree, what matters is the pace of change. Change that is disruptive to social traditions naturally will be resisted by those it disrupts. This does not mean change will not occur, it merely means the pace must be managed prudently. Pushing change beyond the limits of social adaptation often leads to reactionary backlashes, causing undo conflict over the inevitable. The gradual evolution of cultural mores is a good example of how change occurs within the limits of order and stability. Naturally, there will be those in society who object to the too slow or too rapid pace of change.

Finally, opinion polls and surveys suggest that fewer Americans define themselves as truly liberal or conservative, with conservatives exceeding liberals by roughly 35% to 26%, though the gap has been closing. I would also guess these poll numbers are biased by the partisan mischaracterization of both ideological labels.

If this is the case, how do we politically define or classify most American voters? Perhaps we don’t. I would suggest that average non-political Americans are neither conservative nor liberal as strictly defined by their true ideological meanings. Elsewhere I have suggested that most of us, regardless of our politics, are both tolerant and traditional. I have called this dominant ideology based on liberty and justice tolerant traditionalism, as opposed to conservative or liberal. Americans are generally willing to adapt to societal changes as best we can, embracing the good to come of it while feeling wistful for the past we know. Societies that evolve and endure by adapting to change have a proud past and an ever-brighter future.

Why We’re Jaded With Facebook

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Facebook has been under constant fire for more than a year now and seems unable to answer its critics. Under such criticism the company’s executive team has promised to make user privacy its primary concern, until the next revelation exposes its duplicity. Now it seems every other week another article is written demanding that Facebook be broken up or regulated by government oversight.

We might wonder what exactly is wrong with Facebook and why can’t they fix it?

https://www.tukaglobal.com/why-were-jaded-with-facebook

 

Networks and Hierarchies

This is a review of British historian Niall Ferguson’s new book titled The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power. It’s interesting to take the long arc of history into account in this day and age of global communication networks, which might seem to herald the permanent dominance of networks over hierarchies. That history cautions us otherwise.

Ferguson notes two predominant ages of networks: the advent of the printing press in 1452 that led to an explosion of networks across the world until around 1800. This was the Enlightenment period that helped transform economics, politics, and social relations.

Today, the second age of networks consumes us, starting at about 1970 with microchip technology and continuing forward to the present. It is the age of telecommunications, digital technology, and global networks. Ours is an age where it seems “everything is connected.”

Ferguson notes that, beginning with the invention of written language,  all that has happened is that new technologies have facilitated our innate, ancient urge to network – in other words, to connect. This seems to affirm Aristotle’s observation that “man is a social animal,” as well as a large library of psychological behavioral studies over the past century. He also notes that most networks may reflect a power law distribution and be scale-free. In other words, large networks grow larger and become more valuable as they do so. This means the rich get richer and most social networks are profoundly inegalitarian. This implies that the GoogleAmazonFacebookApple (GAFA) oligarchy may be taking over the world, leaving the rest of us as powerless as feudal serfs.

But there is a fatal weakness inherent to this futuristic scenario, in that complex networks create interdependent relationships that can lead to catastrophic cascades, such as the global financial crisis of 2008. Or an explosion of “fake news” and misinformation spewed out by global gossip networks.

We are also seeing a gradual deconstruction of networks that compete with the power of nation-state sovereignty. This is reflected in the rise of nationalistic politics in democracies and authoritarian monopoly control over information in autocracies.

However, from the angle of hierarchical control, Ferguson notes that failures of democratic governance through the administrative state “represents the last iteration of political hierarchy: a system that spews out rules, generates complexity, and undermines both prosperity and stability.”

These historical paths imply that the conflict between distributed networks and concentrated hierarchies is likely a natural tension in search of an uneasy equilibrium.

Ferguson notes “if Facebook initially satisfied the human need to gossip, it was Twitter – founded in March 2006 – that satisfied the more specific need to exchange news, often (though not always) political.” But when I read Twitter feeds I’m thinking Twitter may be more of a tool for disruption rather than constructive dialogue. In other words, we can use these networking technologies to tear things down, but not so much to build them back up again.

As a Twitter co-founder confesses:

‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,’ said Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter in May 2017. ‘I was wrong about that.’

Rather, as Ferguson asserts, “The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy: at best, power ends up in the hands of the Illuminati, but more likely it ends up in the hands of the Jacobins.”

Ferguson is quite pessimistic about today’s dominance of networks, with one slim ray of hope. As he writes,

“…how can an urbanized, technologically advanced society avoid disaster when its social consequences are profoundly inegalitarian?

“To put the question more simply: can a networked world have order? As we have seen, some say that it can. In the light of historical experience, I very much doubt it.”

That slim ray of hope? Blockchain technology!

A thought-provoking book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pondering National Governance

This is a recent article published in the NY Times. To make any sense of our answers to this question requires some ideological and historical clarity. [Blog comments]

Is the United States Too Big to Govern?

By Neil Gross

May 11, 2018

Last month the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Americans are losing faith in their system of government. Only one-fifth of adults surveyed believe democracy is working “very well” in the United States, while two-thirds say “significant changes” are needed to governmental “design and structure.” [Because nobody really knows what these words mean, or they don’t agree among the many meanings, polling results are questionable indicators.]

The 2016 election is one explanation for these findings. Something is not right in a country where Donald Trump is able to win the presidency. [Well, that’s a selective value judgment – one could easily substitute in the names Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The point of a democratic society is that the people get to make those decisions and the people agree to abide by them or revolt. Are the people revolting against themselves or against their political representatives?]  

But here’s another possibility: What if trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means? With a population of more than 325 million and an enormously complex society, perhaps this country has passed a point where — no matter whom we elect — it risks becoming permanently dissatisfied with legislative and governmental performance. [There’s an implicit assumption here that the original intent of the founders is that some central authority should “govern” the affairs of the population and manage the national interest (“traditional means”?). This is probably half true in that a national interest must be represented as the sum of its many parts. We have a Federal government. What was not intended was an all-powerful Federal government.]

Political thinkers, worried about the problem of size, have long advocated small republics. Plato and Aristotle admired the city-state because they thought reason and virtue could prevail only when a polis was small enough that citizens could be acquaintances. Montesquieu, the 18th-century French political philosopher, picked up where the ancient Greeks left off, arguing for the benefits of small territories. “In a large republic,” he wrote, “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations,” whereas in a smaller one the common good “is more strongly felt, better known, and closer to each citizen.” [I suspect Dunbar’s number is at work here.]

The framers of the United States Constitution were keenly aware of these arguments. As the political scientists Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte noted in their 1973 book, “Size and Democracy,” the framers embraced federalism partly because they thought that states were closer in scale to the classical ideal. Ultimately, however, a counterargument advanced by James Madison won the day: Larger republics better protected democracy, he claimed, because their natural political diversity made it difficult for any supersized faction to form and dominate. [With Federalism and the separation of powers and overlapping jurisdictions, I think the founders split the difference here.]

Two and a half centuries later, the accumulated social science suggests that Madison’s optimism was misplaced. Smaller, it seems, is better. [This is a false and impossible choice. When complex networks grow too large, they break-up into smaller, more manageable pieces, but these smaller entities are vulnerable to competitive pressures. This is true in industrial organization, economic and financial markets, and digital and social networks. It also applies to social choice and governance. The founders’ idea was to create a coordinated network of states, counties, and municipalities to manage affairs at the appropriate jurisdictional level. National issues are the sole responsibility of a Federal government balanced by parochial interests. This would secure the strongest union to guarantee citizens’ rights and freedoms. As that task grows in complexity, the need for decentralization and coordination reasserts itself.] 

There are clear economic and military advantages to being a large country. But when it comes to democracy, the benefits of largeness — defined by population or geographic area — are hard to find. Examining data on the world’s nations from the 19th century until today, the political scientists John Gerring and Wouter Veenendaal recently discovered that although size is correlated with electoral competition (in line with the Madisonian argument), there is no association between size and many other standard measures of democratic functioning, such as limits on executive power or the provision of human rights. [Another question raised here is what exactly we mean by democracy. Strictly democracy means government by the people, but popular democracy is a narrow offshoot of that definition. IT also begs the question of what a government by the people is trying to accomplish. Our founders made it clear they thought it was life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Note: the pursuit of happiness, not its guarantee.]

In fact, large nations turn out to have what the political scientist Pippa Norris has called “democratic deficits”: They don’t fully satisfy their citizens’ demands for democracy. [Again, what is that demand? Is it coherent?] For one thing, citizens in large nations are generally less involved in politics and feel they have less of a voice. [Are they unable to secure life, liberty and pursue happiness or do they just not like the results?] Voter turnout is lower. [Low voter turnout could mean that voters are happy with the status quo, or don’t believe voting matters to their individual fates.] According to the political scientist Karen Remmer, smaller-scale political entities encourage voting in ways large ones can’t by “creating a sense of community” and “enforcing norms of citizenship responsibility.” [Perhaps because they enjoy more intrinsic rewards to participation. This would suggest more localized control over politics.] In addition, small countries promote political involvement by leaning heavily on forms of direct democracy, like referendums or citizen assemblies. [This is a feature of scale. Direct democracy on a large scale can empower the tyranny of the popular majority because the effects are so far removed from that majority.]

A second problem is political responsiveness: The policies of large nations can be slow to change, even if change is needed and desired. In a book published last year, the sociologists John Campbell and John Hall compared the reactions to the 2007-2008 financial crisis in Denmark, Ireland, and Switzerland. These three small countries didn’t cause the crisis; a homegrown Irish housing bubble notwithstanding, the shock wave they dealt with came from America. But though the countries were economically vulnerable, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hall observed, this vulnerability fostered unexpected resilience and creativity, generating in each nation “a sense of solidarity or ‘we-ness’” that brought together politicians, regulators, and bankers eager to do whatever was necessary to calm markets. [Again, a sense of “we-ness” is one of scale. Cultural homogeneity helps.] 

With the United States lacking the same sense of shared fate and vulnerability, American policymakers could organize only a tepid response, which helps explain why the recovery here was so slow. This theory sheds light as well on developments in environmental and social welfare policy, where it is increasingly common to find a complacent America lagging behind its smaller, more innovative peers. [Complexity plus centralization leads to sclerosis, which is why centralizing authority in a large, diverse, pluralist society make be unworkable.] 

Finally, largeness can take a toll on citizen trust. The presence of a wide variety of social groups and cultures is the primary reason for this. Nearly all scholars who study country size recognize, as Madison did, that large nations are more socially heterogeneous, whether because they represent an amalgamation of different regions, each with its own ethnolinguistic, religious or cultural heritage; or because their economic vitality encourages immigration; or because population size and geographic spread promote the growth of distinctive subcultures; or because they have more differentiated class structures. [Agreed, which is why encouraging a large diverse population of the virtues of multiculturalism may actually be a detriment. I believe the original idea, or at least the one that prevailed in past influxes of cultural groups, was the melting pot of gradual, voluntary assimilation.]

It isn’t inevitable that a large amount of social variation would undermine trust. Well-governed societies like Canada address the issue by stitching diversity and multiculturalism into their national identities. Yet in the absence of cultural and institutional supports, heterogeneity and trust are frequently in tension, as different ways of life give rise to suspicion and animosity. Without at least a veneer of trust among diverse social groups, politics spirals downward. [This characterization of Canada seems counter-intuitive. Stitching ethnic diversity and multiculturalism into a national identity means that national identity must be based not on ethnicity, race, or diverse cultures but in a national identity based on universal principles and social contracts. In other words, on something called patriotism and fealty to the larger community, subsuming ethnic, racial, and cultural differences.]

The challenges of American largeness are here to stay. The task now is for individuals, civic organizations and institutions to commit themselves to building stronger communities and a renewed sense of shared responsibility and trust among different groups. Within the constraints of our nation’s size, we can create conditions for as much democracy as possible. [So, we converge on the idea that it is inevitable we decentralize power and assume the responsibility of self-governance? What then is the real political conflict of interest?]

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College.