Order vs. Chaos: How We Choose

(The Towers of San Gimignano)

Below is a thought-provoking essay by historian Niall Ferguson examining the fluid structure of societies that swing from hierarchies to decentralized networks.

Anyway, this is a subject dear to my heart, as it is the overriding theme of several of my fiction books. See interjections below…

In Praise of Hierarchy – The Wall Street Journal
https://apple.news/A3UEyEvI-SnuHNdt8fLLjzg (paywall)

The Saturday Essay
Established, traditional order is under assault from freewheeling, networked disrupters as never before. But society craves centralized leadership, too.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.

Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.

But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?

True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.

Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”

Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.

Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza.

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Siena’s torre

This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

COM2014-tiny FB cover

The epic story of chaos vs. order during the Savonarola-Machiavelli era, foreshadowing Martin Luther.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.

Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.

In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere.

IGWT Cover12 6x9 large 2017

Freemasons in today’s Washington, D.C.?

At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.

 

Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.

Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.

Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.

The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.

The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.

It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.

Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.

There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.

Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.

We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.

Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.

 

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Economic Thrill Rides

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The following is excerpted from an editorial in Barron’s by Thomas Donlan. (Full article Barrons. Subscription req’d)

Central planning that is intended to eliminate chaos eventually creates it. As Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, state economic planning is unavoidably arbitrary: “The more the state plans, the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”

Among many examples of this principle: If a government tweaks money supply to hit targets for interest rates and exchange rates, it will provide stability in those things, but the economy will fluctuate. Or, if the government tries to guarantee general economic growth, as measured by employment, gross domestic product, consumer confidence, business investment, or all of them, rates of interest and exchange will fluctuate. Either way, the economy will be under control of an unstable, unpredictable thing that seeks order instead of liberty, and so can deliver neither.

We should see in the recent market chaos the economic chaos created by planning — not just in China but in the U.S. and Europe, as well. Markets are trying to follow political orders. In China, the government wanted to let markets have more influence over the value of money, until it observed the results and ordered a devaluation. In Europe, the promise to do “whatever it takes” to stabilize a rickety monetary union has perpetuated chaos.

Naturally, markets gyrate under pressure of the sort generated by the president of the New York Federal Reserve. From one side of his desk, he said he still hopes that the Fed will raise interest rates this year, while from the other side, he observed that the case for a rise “seems less compelling.”

The great danger in a market tremor is what people do about it. China, the U.S., and Europe have given too much power to their monetary authorities, relying on central bankers to sail against the winds of economic change. They believe economies respond predictably to tinkering with money markets.

Actually, economies respond to stimuli with booms and to tightening with busts, unless they don’t. As economist Ed Yardeni suggested at midweek, perhaps with tongue in cheek, “Another 2008 crisis is imminent eventually.”

All over the world, there are people who imagine themselves to be masters of the material universe. They are the greatest threat to liberty and prosperity.

I have been arguing for some time that this is how we should understand economic policy over the past 30+ years, often referred to as the Great Moderation. We’ve tried to guarantee economic growth as measured by nominal GDP, interest rates, employment, and price stability as measured by the CPI. The result has caused asset prices such as commodities, exchange rates, real estate, and precious metals to fluctuate quite widely and wildly.

Asset price fluctuations impose their own costs on people, often with arbitrary effects, like when you are forced to buy or sell a house (see chart below). Asset price support by the Fed has also greatly enriched those who own more assets, widening the economic inequality gaps. It is hardly an ideal state of affairs, nor one that can easily be justified on philosophical grounds.

Housing index

This is My (Pent)House

broken-ladderIllustrative quote from Larry Katz, Harvard economics professor, which apparently has been making the rounds for awhile…

Think of the American economy as a large apartment block. A century ago – even 30 years ago – it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most.

The Making of Financial Policy

BHOBank

The following is excerpted from an article by Jay Cost:

How about Wall Street reform? Obama likes to pose as a people-versus-the-powerful crusader, but he staffed his administration with friends of the big banks. Unsurprisingly, that has enormously influenced policy.

David Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, writes about the framework “that would eventually become the Dodd-Frank legislation,” in particular the resolution rules that enables Treasury to intervene when too-big-to-fail institutions fall into distress.  He explains:

Both the resolution rules and the overall framework read as if they had been written by Timothy Geithner in consultation with the large banks he had worked with as head of the New York Fed. Geithner would get all of the powers that he and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wished they had when they intervened with Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG. But the framework also did not overly ruffle the feathers of the largest financial institutions. There was no call to break them up…While systemically important status might subject the biggest institutions to greater oversight, it also would bring benefits in the marketplace. They could borrow money more cheaply than could smaller competitors, because lenders would assume they would be protected in the event of a collapse, as the creditors of Bear Stearns and AIG were.

The suspicion that the legislation might be a little too accommodating to the largest banks was further aroused by the discovery that David, Polk & Wardell, “a law firm that represents many banks and the financial industry’s lobbying group,” as the New York Times put it…had been deeply involved in the early drafting of the legislation. Treasury had worked from a draft first written by Davis Polk, and the legislation literally had the law firm’s name on it when Treasury submitted it to Congress, thanks to a computer watermark that Treasury had neglected to delete.

That’s not all. In Confidence Men, Ron Suskind reports that Obama instructed Geithner to develop a plan to break up Citi — as a warning to the other banks and a signal to the broader marketplace that the government was in charge, not the banks. But, per Suskind, Geithner disobeyed Obama, and never put together the plan. He suffered no consequences.

The best that can be said about this president and Wall Street is that, when it mattered most, he was a passive observer in his own administration. He allowed shills to write a bill enormously favorable to the biggest interests.

The Swiss Bail

Swiss-National-Bank-Chappatte_200115

This is a good, succinct explanation of the significance of the Swiss National Bank action to cease printing money and what’s in store for the central bank policies of the world.

Quote from asset manager Axel Merk:

Ultimately, central banks are just sipping from a straw in the ocean. I did not invent that term. Our senior economic advisor, Bill Poole, who is the former president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve taught us this: that central banks are effective as long as there is credibility.

What central banks have done is to try to make risky assets appear less risky, so that investors are encouraged or coerced into taking more risks. Because you get no interest or you are penalized for holding cash, you’ve got to go out and buy risky assets. You’ve got to go out and buy junk bonds. You have to go out and go out and buy equities.

The equity market volatility, until not long ago, has been very low. When volatility is low, investors are encouraged to buy something that is historically risky because it is no longer risky, right?

But as the Swiss National Bank has shown, risk can come back with a vengeance. The same thing can happen of course, in any other market. If the Federal Reserve wants to pursue an “exit” to its intervention, if it wants to go down this path, well, volatility is going to come back.

Everything else equal, it means asset prices have to be priced lower. That is the problem if you base an economic recovery exclusively on asset price inflation. We are going to have our hands full trying to kind of move on from here. In that context, what the Swiss National Bank has done is it is just a canary in the coal mine that there will be more trouble ahead.

How We Finance (Blow) Bubbles

stock_market_bubbleEconomist and fund manager John Hussman outlines some basic economic truths in his weekly market comment (full text here). All bubbles in history have one thing in common: excess liquidity (usually through credit creation but also through the acquisition of gold under the gold standard, or some other fungible commodity discovered in abundance, such as oil).

Excess liquidity funds all kinds of unproductive boondoggle investments, such as tulip bulbs and South Sea Island land speculation. Hussman outlines how the Fed, in consort with other central banks such as the BoJ and ECB, are pumping up our fragile global economy with credit created out of whole cloth.

On Friday (Oct 31), the Bank of Japan promised a fresh round of quantitative easing, prompting a collapse in the yen, a surge in the U.S. dollar, and marginal new highs in several stock market indices.

At present, the entire global financial system has been turned into a massive speculative carry trade. A carry trade involves buying some risky asset – regardless of price or valuation – so long as the current yield on that asset exceeds the short-term risk-free interest rate. Valuations don’t matter to carry-trade speculators, because the central feature of those trades is the expectation that the securities can be sold to some greater fool when the “spread” (the difference between the yield on the speculative asset and the risk-free interest rate) narrows. The strategy relies on the willingness of market participants to equate current yield (interest rate or dividend yield) with total return, ignoring the impact of price changes, or simply assuming that price changes in risky assets must be positive because low risk-free interest rates offer “no other choice” but to take risk.

The narrative of overvalued carry trades ending in collapse is one that winds through all of financial history in countries around the globe. Yet the pattern repeats because the allure of “reaching for yield” is so strong. Again, to reach for yield, regardless of price or value, is a form of myopia that not only equates yield with total return, but eventually demands the sudden and magical appearance of a crowd of greater fools in order to exit successfully. The mortgage bubble was fundamentally one enormous carry trade focused on mortgage backed securities. Currency crises around the world generally have a similar origin. At present, the high-yield debt markets and equity markets around the world are no different.

Hussman also explains why the Fed’s assumptions about liquidity by subsidizing zero interest rates are not yielding risk-taking investment:

The fact is that financial repression – suppressing nominal interest rates and attempting to drive real interest rates to negative levels – does nothing to help the real economy. This is certainly not a new revelation. In part, this fact can be understood by thinking about how interest rates are related to the productivity and quantity of real investment in the economy. 

…depressed real interest rates are symptomatic of a dearth of productive investment opportunities. When central banks respond by attempting to drive those real interest rates even lower to “stimulate” interest-sensitive spending such as housing or debt-financed real investment, they really only lower the bar to invite unproductive investment and speculative carry trades. 

Here we have the intuitive logic that eludes the Fed:

As the central bank creates more money and interest rates move lower, people don’t suddenly go out and consume goods and services, they simply reach for yield in more and more speculative assets such as mortgage debt, and junk debt, and equities. Consumers don’t consume just because their assets have taken a different form. Businesses don’t invest just because their assets have taken a different form. The only activities that are stimulated by zero interest rates are those where interest rates are the primary cost of doing business: financial transactions.

What central banks around the world seem to overlook is that by changing the mix of government liabilities that the public is forced to hold, away from bonds and toward currency and bank reserves, the only material outcome of QE is the distortion of financial markets, turning the global economy into one massive speculative carry trade. The monetary base, interest rates, and velocity are jointly determined, and absent some exogenous shock to velocity or interest rates, creating more base money simply results in that base money being turned over at a slower rate.

To sum up Hussman’s outlook he writes: From a full-cycle perspective, we continue to view present conditions as among the most hostile in history. 

That, my friends, is our central bank and Federal government at work.

The Bottom Line on ZIRP

too-big-to-fail

These are the results in a nutshell (links provided):

Easy money from the Federal Reserve has made many owners of financial assets rich—U.S. household wealth hit a record in the second quarter—but hasn’t done much for workers. U.S. median income is below the level of 2009 and the labor-force participation rate remains at 1970s levels.

What’s Going On?

pigs

Marvin Gaye asked this question referring to American society in the 1960s. We could ask it again in the 2010s.

This macroeconomic and monetary policy analysis by the Hussman Funds is extremely insightful. Read the full essay here. I include a few relevant excerpts below:

Several factors contribute to the broad sense that something in the economy is not right despite exuberant financial markets and a lower rate of unemployment. In our view, the primary factor is two decades of Fed-encouraged misallocation of capital to speculative uses, coupled with the crash of two bubbles (and we suspect a third on the way). This repeated misallocation of investment resources has contributed to a thinning of our capital base that would not have occurred otherwise. The Fed has repeatedly followed a policy course that sacrifices long-term growth by encouraging speculative malinvestment out of impatience for short-term gain. Sustainable repair will only emerge from undistorted, less immediate, but more efficient capital allocation.

First, we should begin by stopping the harm. Quantitative easing will not help to reverse this process. The dogmatic pursuit of Phillips Curve effects, attempting to lower unemployment with easy money, has done little to materially change employment beyond what is likely to have occurred without such extraordinary intervention, but has contributed to speculative imbalances and an increasingly uneven income distribution. Indeed, Fed policy does violence to the economy by helping to narrow it to what complex systems theorists call a “monoculture.” Nearly every minute of business television is now dominated by the idea that the Federal Reserve is the only thing that matters. Meanwhile, by pursuing a policy that distinctly benefits those enterprises whose primary cost is interest itself, the Fed’s policies have preserved and enhanced too-big-to-fail banks, financial engineering, and speculative international capital flows at the expense of local lending, small and medium-size banks and enterprises, and ultimately, economic diversity.

The always observant Charles Hugh Smith puts it this way: “Diversity and adaptability go together; each is a feature of the other. The Federal Reserve has created an unstable monoculture of an economy. What should have triggered a ‘die off’ of one predatory species – the ‘too big to fail’ mortgage/commercial banks and the Wall Street investment banks – was redistributed to all other participants. In insulating participants from risk, fact-finding, and volatility, you make price discovery and thus stability impossible.”

The Federal Reserve’s prevailing view of the world seems to be that a) QE lowers interest rates, b) lower interest rates stimulate jobs and economic activity, c) the only risk from QE will be at the point when unemployment is low enough to trigger inflation, and d) the Fed can safely encourage years of yield-seeking speculation – of the same sort that produced the worst economic collapse since the Depression – on the belief that this time is different. From the foregoing discussion, it should be clear that this chain of cause and effect is a very mixed bag of fact and fiction.

The economy is starting to take on features of a winner-take-all monoculture that encourages and subsidizes too-big-to-fail banks and large-scale financial speculation at the expense of productive real investment and small-to-medium size enterprises. These are outcomes that our policy makers at the Fed have single-handedly chosen for us in the well-meaning belief that the economy is helped by extraordinary financial distortions.

 

 

 

The Immorality of Currency Devaluation

inflationtax

Quote from Mary A. O’Grady writing in the WSJ:

Few economic injustices are more villainous than stealing from the poor. Yet this is what a government does when it devalues its currency. Pope Francis has stressed the Christian obligation to share with the least of our brothers. Devaluation actually takes from them what they have earned themselves. And while the inflation tax that follows hits everybody, it wallops the low-income population the hardest.

….

Pope Francis is not oblivious to the consequences of monetary meddling. In his November 2013 “apostolic exhortation,” he wrote: “Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power.”

In Search of the Elusive Unicorn

unicorn

Economist Michael Munger writing in the Freeman, Aug. 11:

When I am discussing the state with my colleagues at Duke, it’s not long before I realize that, for them, almost without exception, the State is a unicorn. I come from the Public Choice tradition, which tends to emphasize consequentialist arguments more than natural rights, and so the distinction is particularly important for me. My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA.

But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of “the State.” That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.

Then I realized that they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it. When I finally realized that we were talking past each other, I felt kind of dumb. Because essentially this very realization—that people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world—has been a core part of the argument made by classical liberals for at least three hundred years.