Freedom = Choice + Autonomy + Protection

I came across this article in this past weekend’s WSJ. It discusses the transformation of work instigated by the pandemic lockdown. I have long maintained that people living in a free society crave the positive freedoms of choice and personal autonomy, subject to the negative freedom of security against the fear of risk and loss. The pandemic has brought that behavior to the fore with the demands for freedom to work when and where we want, with whom, and on what as the fulfillment of life’s meaning. At the same time we have demanded protection through government from healthcare risks we cannot control ourselves. Now that we have been forced to reexamine our lives and search for new meaning, we are mostly unwilling to give it up and go back to how we worked and lived before. This is social progress, because the post-industrial employment and career path was an economic imperative imposed on our human nature, and therefore faintly unnatural. We all felt it inside.

Within this new structural paradigm of freedom, people are free to imagine, create, share, and connect. This the vision of tuka, the social network platform that connects the creative…

I reprint the article in full:

The Real Meaning of Freedom at Work

wsj.com/articles/the-real-meaning-of-freedom-at-work-11633704877

October 8, 2021

By Adam Grant

As the Covid-19 pandemic moves into a new phase, many companies have started insisting that we come back to the office full-time. In response, people are quitting their jobs in droves. Flexibility is now the fastest-rising job priority in the U.S., according to a poll of more than 5,000 LinkedIn members. More than half of Americans want their next job to be self-employed—some as entrepreneurs, others as freelancers in the gig economy or content curators in the creator economy.

When Covid untethered us from our offices, many people experienced new forms of flexibility, and the taste of freedom left us hungry for more. We started rethinking what we wanted out of work. But the Great Resignation is not a mad dash away from the office; it’s the culmination of a long march toward freedom. More than a decade ago, psychologists documented a generational shift in the centrality of work in our lives. Millennials were more interested in jobs that provided leisure time and vacation time than Gen Xers and baby boomers. They were less concerned about net worth than net freedom.

In a classic 1958 lecture, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between two types of freedom. Negative liberty is freedom from obstacles and interference by others. Positive liberty is freedom to control your own destiny and shape your own life. If we want to maximize net freedom in the future of work, we need to expand both positive and negative liberty.

The debate about whether work should be in-person, remote-first or hybrid is too narrow. Yes, people want the freedom to decide where they work. But they also want the freedom to decide who they work with, what they work on and when they work. Real flexibility is having autonomy to choose your people, your purpose and your priorities.

Remote work has granted us some negative liberties. It can release employees from the manacles of micromanagers, the trap of traffic jams and the cacophony of open offices. But it has also created new constraints on time. Even before Covid, many people reported spending the majority of their work time in meetings and on emails. Once everyone was reachable around the clock, collaboration overload only got worse.

In a study led by economist Michael Gibbs, when more than 10,000 employees of a large Asian IT company started working from home during the pandemic, productivity fell even as working hours increased. The researchers didn’t measure the physical and emotional toll of Covid, but the data showed that people got less done because they had less time to focus. They were stuck in more group meetings and got interrupted more often.

Good segmentation policies allow people to commit to predictable time off that shields them from work intrusions into their lives.

To free people from these constraints, we need better boundaries. There’s evidence that working from home has been more stressful for “segmentors” who prefer to separate the different spheres of life than for “integrators” who are happy to blur the lines. Good segmentation policies allow people to commit to predictable time off that shields them from work intrusions into their lives. For example, the healthcare company Vynamic has a policy called “zzzMail” that discourages sending emails on nights and weekends.

We need boundaries to protect individual focus time too. On remote teams, it’s not the frequency of interaction that fuels productivity and creativity—it’s the intensity of interaction. In a study of virtual software teams by collaboration experts Christoph Riedl and Anita Woolley, the most effective and innovative teams didn’t communicate every hour. They’d spend several hours or days concentrating on their own work and then start communicating in bursts. With messages and bits of code flying back and forth, their collaborations were literally bursting with energy and ideas.

One effective strategy seems to be blocking quiet time in the mornings as a window for deep work, and then coming together after lunch. When virtual meetings are held in the afternoon, people are less likely to multitask—probably in part because they’ve been able to make progress on their own tasks. For the many workplaces rolling out hybrid schedules of one or two remote days each week, it might also help to have teams coordinate on-site days so they can do individual work at home and collaborate when they’re in the same room.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve discovered a new constraint of remote work: Zoom fatigue is real. Yes, turning off your self-view can make you less self-conscious, but it doesn’t remove the cognitive load of worrying about how other people will perceive you and trying to read their facial expressions. Turning the camera off altogether can help. In a summer 2020 experiment led by organizational psychologists Kristen Shockley and Allison Gabriel, when employees at a healthcare company had the freedom to turn their video off during virtual meetings, it reduced fatigue—especially for women and new hires, who generally face more pressure to monitor their image.

New research reveals that having voice-only conversations isn’t just less exhausting; there are times when it can be more effective. When two people working on a problem together only hear each other’s voices, they’re more likely to pause to listen to each other, which translates into more equal speaking time and smarter decisions. And if you’re trying to read someone’s emotions, you’re more accurate if you close your eyes or turn off the lights and just listen to their voice.

This doesn’t mean cameras should never be on. Seeing human faces can be helpful if you’re giving a presentation, building trust or trying to coordinate in a big group. But videos can also be a constraint—you don’t need them in every meeting. The most underused technology of 2021 might be the phone call.

In a world of rising inequality, remote work has released some restraints. Many working mothers have struggled during the pandemic, in large part because of the responsibility of child care when schools were closed. But research suggests that in normal circumstances, the option to work remotely is especially helpful for working mothers, giving them the flexibility to excel in their jobs. And working from home, Black employees have reported less stress. One survey found that 97% of Black knowledge workers currently working from home want to remain partially or fully remote for the foreseeable future.

But going remote runs the risk of limiting positive liberties. In a landmark 2014 experiment at a call center in China, a team led by economist Nicholas Bloom randomly assigned hundreds of employees to work from home. Although remote workers were 13% more productive, they were only half as likely to be promoted—likely because they didn’t have enough face time with senior managers.

It’s well documented that many managers mistake visibility for value and reward presence instead of performance. The very employees who gain freedom from constraints thanks to remote work may end up missing out on the freedom to develop their skills and advance their careers.

One source of positive liberty is the freedom to choose who we interact with and learn from. After more than 60,000 employees at Microsoft transitioned to remote work during the pandemic, researchers found that their personal networks became more siloed and static. There were fewer new connections between people, fewer bridges between teams and fewer real-time conversations within groups. That made it tougher to acquire and share knowledge.

To give people the freedom to learn, we need to work harder to open doors. In the summer of 2020, researchers teamed up with a large company that hired more than a thousand interns to work remotely in 16 cities. They found that scheduling “virtual water coolers”— informal meetings with senior managers—elevated interns’ satisfaction as well as their performance ratings and their odds of getting a return offer. Just three or four virtual meetings with senior managers was enough to open the door to learning, mentoring and trust. What if more leaders hosted virtual office hours?

Another source of positive liberty is the freedom to decide what work we do. A few years ago, I visited a California tomato paste company called Morning Star to understand how they’ve managed to sustain success for several decades without bosses. When you first arrive at Morning Star, you’re assigned the job of your predecessor. After a year, you’re invited to rewrite your job description, with two conditions. You have to explain how your revamped job will advance the company’s mission, and you have to get the people who work with you most closely to agree to it.

When employees have the flexibility to customize their work, they’re more effective, more satisfied and more likely to stay.

Organizational psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton call this “job crafting,” and it enables people to become active architects of their own tasks and interactions. Extensive research suggests that when employees have the flexibility to customize their work, they’re more effective, more satisfied and more likely to stay.

The biggest source of positive liberty may be the freedom to decide when and how much we work. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic about going remote, it’s that people aren’t shirking from home—they’re working overtime. But the 40-hour workweek was not ordained from above; it’s a human invention that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. Anthropologists find that for more than 95% of human history, people enjoyed more leisure time than we do now. Generations of hunter-gatherers subsisted on 15-hour workweeks. When we started treating humans like machines, we began confusing time spent with value created.

At the Brazilian manufacturing company Semco, leaders noticed that when retirement finally gives people the freedom to pursue their passions for travel, sports, arts and volunteering, their health often stands in the way. So the company started a Retire-A-Little program, inviting workers to trade 10% of their salaries for Wednesdays off. They expected it to be popular with employees in their 50s, but it was actually employees in their 20s who jumped at the opportunity to trade money for time.

When people have the flexibility to work less, they often focus better and produce more. In the U.S. alone, researchers estimate that companies waste $100 billion a year paying for idle time. When Microsoft Japan tested a 4-day workweek, productivity climbed by 40% and costs declined. The Icelandic government tested reducing workweeks from 40 to 36 hours at the same pay in offices, hospitals and police stations over a four-year period. It found that well-being and work-life balance improved, while productivity was sustained across the board—and in some cases heightened.

Offering the freedom to work less is an opportunity to attract, motivate and retain talented people. From 2018 to 2021, the number of job postings offering a four-day workweek has tripled, but they are still less than one in 100 jobs. Along with shortening the workweek, it’s worth rethinking the workday. What if we finished at 3 p.m. so that working parents could be with their children when they came home from school? Would we see better results—and higher quality of life—in six focused hours than eight unfocused hours?

Flexible work is here to stay, but companies that resist it may not be.

Flexible work is here to stay, but companies that resist it may not be. One of the biggest mistakes I saw companies make before Covid was failing to experiment with new forms of freedom. As employers contemplate a return to the workplace, a good place to start might be to ask people about the experiments they’ve run in the past year and a half and the ones they’d love to try moving forward. What old constraints should we try removing, and what new freedoms could we test?

Work isn’t just our livelihood. It can be a source of structure, belonging and meaning in our lives. But that doesn’t mean our jobs should dictate how we spend most of our waking hours. For several generations, we’ve organized our lives around our work. Our jobs have determined where we make our homes, when we see our families and what we can squeeze in during our downtime. It might be time to start planning our work around our lives.

Appeared in the October 9, 2021, print edition as ‘The Real Meaning of Freedom at Work The Value of Liberty for Workers.’

Modern Monetary Fantasies

I read this comment to an article on cultural conflict and politics (the article was a UK perspective and not that insightful – see link below). I was struck by this reader’s comment because it hits the nail on the head, despite its rudimentary tone and language. I could write an empirical and theoretical analysis that would bore readers to tears but it would all support this view.

It’s US$ monetary policy that is driving the distributional consequences of deficit spending along with globalization and technology into the cul-de-sac we find ourselves in. Think about it: when the government borrows and spends $28 trillion, where do we think it goes? Into private pockets controlled by those at the top. (All those real estate assets we own are merely keeping pace – it’s still the same four walls and roof.)

There’s probably not more than a handful of politicians in Washington DC that could explain this well or understand it, but they’re all setting the policies in ignorance.

Money Printing, the ability to spend more than is taken in has had a vast set of consequences – and almost all the problems can be laid at its feet. Really Nixon in 1971 taking US off the ‘Gold Standard’ to fund Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ and the Vietnam War. Both these make the rich richer. The Military-Industrial Complex goes directly to the wealthy, and the increased Social Spending $ always trickle-up while paying the poor to be poor traps them in poverty.

And so it has progressed till the National debt is 28$ Trillion! About equal to 8 years of all USA’s tax revenues. At the current ZERO percent interest rate it takes 1.5$ Trillion to service the debt! About half of all the Fed Tax revenues! Biden wants to add 4.5$ Trillion on human infrastructure (waste, pork, corruption, and free money to minorities, to trickle to the super-rich (and China, via Amazon and Walmart)). This on top of the monthly 120$ BILLION purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities the Fed buys – and the 1-3$ Trillion budget deficit! (If, when, interest rises to 5% it will take all the gov tax revenue just to service the national debt – )

Anyway, the printed $ all rise to the super wealthy, they get all of it. The poor just get addicted to the drug of the Welfare Trap, and become multi-generational poor. The working class and middle class have all their savings and pensions harvested by the stealth Tax called Inflation (now officially 5%, but really 9) because interest must be kept at Zero for the debt to be serviced. So all workers’ savings get eaten up by inflation Tax of 5% – (minus the bank and bond interest of 1% = MINUS 4% savings growth). Their pensions and savings melting like snow as the printing inflates the money supply….

But the above just scratches the surface of the harm. USA will eventually lose ‘Reserve Currency Status’ over this. The foreign trade deficit is a Trillion – how can that continue – the hard assets and Equities so inflated – and the wealthy own them. The rich have hard assets which appreciate, they carry HUGE debt at 3% interest while inflation eats the debt basis away – and Dividends, so make money while everyone goes broke.

This is what Lefty/Liberal MMT is doing – the death of America. The Left economics is always same – all the money to the elites, and the rest go broke.

Why Does America Hate Itself?

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.

DSC_1483_2

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.

 

Economic Thrill Rides

volatility-cartoon

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.