Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Fun with extrapolation
Monday, December 29, 2008
Debt forgiveness, inflation and welching
In a simple handwave estimate, one might say that the debt will have to be discounted by at least half. That includes inflation and selective defaults...
... something has got to give. The givers will most likely be all holders of US financial assets, responsible middle class savers, and a disproportionate share of foreign holders of US debt.
While the debtors hold the means of payment in dollars and the power to decide who gets paid, where do you think the most likely impact will be felt?
I give below the US Treasury's data on foreign holdings of their government securities as at October 2008, but I also reinterpret it in the light of each country's GDP, to show relative potential impact (please click on image to enlarge).
Mind you, even a complete repudiation would only take care of $3 trillion. Funny how not so long ago, $1 trillion seemed a high-end estimate of the damage, and now it's something like seven times that. And that still leaves a long haul to get to Hodges' $53 tn - equivalent to, what, one year's global GDP?
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Is gold a hedge against inflation?
(N.B. gold prices to the end of 1967 are annual averages, then monthly averages to the end of 1974, then the price is as on the first trading day of the month; all gold price figures from Kitco).
Friday, December 26, 2008
Nominal and real
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
"Efficiency" vs. survival
Robert Paterson, as quoted by London Banker.
Like I keep saying, it's about diversity, dispersion and disconnection - please click on the label below for my posts on this subject.
It's not about dinosaurs
1. The death of William Blake, 12 August 1827:
“Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven”
2. The experience of St Thomas Aquinas, 6 December 1273:
LXXIX: The witness went on to recall that while brother Thomas was saying his Mass one morning, in the chapel of St. Nicholas at Naples, something happened which profoundly affected and altered him. After Mass he refused to write or dictate; indeed he put away his writing materials. He was in the third part of the Summa, at the questions on Penance. And brother Reginald, seeing that he was not writing, said to him: 'Father, are you going to give up this great work, undertaken for the glory of God and to enlighten the world?' But Thomas replied: 'Reginald, I cannot go on.' Then Reginald, who began to fear that much study might have affected his master's brain, urged and insisted that he should continue his writing; but Thomas only answered in the same way: 'Reginald, I cannot - because all that I have written seems to me so much straw.' Then Reginald, astonished that ... brother Thomas should go to see his sister, the countess of San Severino, whom he loved in all charity; and hastening there with great difficulty, when he arrived and the countess came out to meet him, he could scarcely speak. The countess, very much alarmed, said to Reginald: 'What has happened to brother Thomas? He seems quite dazed and hardly spoke to me!' And Reginald answered: 'He has been like this since about the feast of St. Nicholas - since when he has written nothing at all.' Then again brother Reginald began to beseech Thomas to tell him why he refused to write and why he was so stupefied; and after much of this urgent questioning and insisting, Thomas at last said to Reginald: 'Promise me, by the living God almighty and by your loyalty to our Order and by the love you bear to me, that you will never reveal, as long as I live, what I shall tell you.' Then he added: 'All that I have written seems to me like straw compared with what has now been revealed to me.'
Fasten your seatbelts
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Vengeance is mine
And Jim Kunstler, too.
Every little thing's gonna be all right
Perhaps it's no coincidence that BBC is currently screening a remake of Terry Nation's gripping 1975 post-catastrophe series, "Survivors". But that series assumes that most people have died suddenly because of a virus, so the ecosystem has not been destroyed by desparate, starving victims. I don't think Survivors is the model we should use. If we are to survive, it'll be together, in our populous societies, because if society breaks down, you and I are unlikely to emerge as the last people standing. Lone heroes don't win; this is a fantasy.
I think spare supplies are a good idea, because there could be some disruption, which could affect the very young and elderly; so we need ways to keep warm, eat and have clean water in an emergency. And it's important to make your home secure against a rise in burglary, which is associated with economic downturns; and not to go out after dark without at least one or two companions. Weapons are another matter: "guns in the home are far more likely to be used against members of the household than against intruders."
Pace the doomsters, the UK and the USA will feed itself. We may end up eating more veg and less meat; and we may be using public transport instead of cars; personally, that would simply take me back to the 70s, when I was slimmer and fitter. Globally and locally, there is enough to feed the world, although not enough to overfeed it or encourage unproductive men to sire children.
Two aspects of the current crisis worry me:
1. The present method of organising resources may be replaced, not by one dreamed of by well-fed Western socialists, but by a cruel, remote, commanding elite as in North Korea or East Germany, who far from minimising scarcity will use it to get and maintain power.
2. The transition from this system to whatever replaces it, may be disorderly and involve suffering for many people.
This is why I think the underlying issue for us is to preserve and strengthen democracy, to increase the chances that both the journey and the journey's end are acceptable.
Monday, December 22, 2008
Satyajit Das (htp: Jesse)
Nope. Banks need destroying, as does all this bank-created debt. The mistake is to try to keep things as they are. How did we come to buy houses "on tick", then cars, and now our clothes and groceries? Why is there any lending for consumption, seeing how it only means reduced future consumption? Why should banks be kept going, requiring a significant proportion of our earnings, so that wages have to be high for us to live on what's left, making us uncompetitive with the developing world?
I am reminded of the pitiless response of the Comte d'Argenson to the satirist, Desfontaines:
Desfontaines: I must live.
D'Argenson : I do not see the necessity.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
The lesser of two weevils
In an apocalyptic - but carefully-reasoned - post, Karl Denninger says that when the deficit expansion stops, US government spending will have to be cut by 50 - 60%, unless there is to be a "general default" on debts.
I have no idea what a general default would look like, but in a closely-interwoven and distant-from-nature modern industrial society I can only fear it might prove utterly destructive. So we're back to contemplating the lesser, but still vast disaster.
I also have no idea how much worse it might be in the UK.
Someone else please read this unberobed OT prophet and tell me where he's wrong.
While the Obama Administration cannot take a 'weak dollar' policy it is the only practical way to correct the imbalances brought about by the last 20 years of systemic manipulation. It is either that, or the selective default on sovereign debt, most likely through conflict, a hot or cold war.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
How will the future look?
Friday, December 19, 2008
Europe is keeping China (and America) going
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The seventh seal
With the $7 trillion dollars we have committed we could have literally given every homeowner with a mortgage a fifty percent reduction in the principal outstanding.
This would have instantaneously stopped all of the foreclosures by putting all (essentially) homes into positive equity - overnight!
So why wasn't this done?
His answer: the government is trying to cover the staggering bets of the derivatives market. With borrowed money. The Treasury has swallowed the grenade and put its fingers in its ears.
This is the fourth horseman of the financial apocalypse that Michael Panzner predicted, as summarized here on Bearwatch on May 10, 2007.
UPDATE: Jesse comments on another fresh sum - tens of billions - needed to cover AIG's losses. As he says, there is an air of expectancy; but also of unreality, like the announcement of a major war.
Working my way into the system, it all seemed that it couldn't possibly work: too many people with no discernible talent were earning too much, and prices were lower than I thought they should be, particularly fuel prices. I thought the problem was that I wasn't intelligent enough, and just didn't understand.
The one personal satisfaction that I can get from the current mess is that I was right - it doesn't make sense.
WeaselWordWatch update: "Quantitative Easing"
On yer bike
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I cannot help but think of Douglas Adams' 'Shoe Event Horizon', where eventually every shop becomes a shoe shop.
The answer is blowing in the wind
In the news
Also in the Daily Mail, Alex Brummer says Madoff has queered the pitch for hedge funds generally. Damn: I had started to look at how to set one up, using links supplied by Jim from San Marcos. If I'd started a couple of years ago, I'd have got everyone into cash and made a packet for them and myself. 2 and 20, 2 and 20.
Odds on the bankers and hedgies Getting Away With It? Pretty fair, I'd have thought - especially when you bear in mind (as Denninger points out - and Jesse, too) all the others who could be implicated. To quote Oscar Wilde: "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means."
Monday, December 15, 2008
Change the conditions so that some players have an advantage, and eventually those players will be the only winners. How long this takes depends on the size of the advantage.
This is the basis of the mutation and natural selection portion of evolution theory.
For a generation after World War II, the US had a huge advantage: capital, undamaged manufacturing capacity, cheap energy, and most of the scientists and engineers. Thus, we 'won' the economic game, and it was attributed to Americans being 'better'.
We failed to notice that many other nations were catching up in education and technology. That the government and industry chose to dis-invest in research in the 1980's just accelerated the process.
As the playing field is now level (or even tipped against us), we should carefully consider how to gain back that advantage. We have done so before in the short term: arming in World War II, the Manhattan Project, the Space Race.
Do we have the will to do this when not faced with war, but with long-term economic decline?
The elephant in the room?
In the 1960's, the US undertook an orgy of spending on the Great Society and the Cold War (including the Vietnam War and Space Race). At the same time, the typical middle-class American lived an extravagant lifestyle, relatively speaking. This was all fueled by cheap American oil, gas and coal.
By 1973, we had used so much that OPEC had us over a barrel, and by 1975 we had our first large trade deficits, which have grown every year.
Since about 1980, not much has come out of our industry that the rest of the world seems to want to buy.
Did we go broke 30 years ago, and are just now noticing it?
There's more truth in humour ...
C.E.O. talking in his palatial office talking to a man with a wrench in his hand:
"We crunched the numbers over and over on where we could cut back, and it kept coming down to whatever it is you guys do on the assembly line..."
In a nutshell
Those who are old enough may remember having to do a precis in English. This is a very valuable, rational, intellectual exercise, which perhaps is one of the reasons it was ditched in New Teaching.
Do you think you could distil LB's observations in, say, 600 words?
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Two cheers for deflation
Jörg Guido Hülsmann, on the Mises site, says deflation does not ruin the economy as a whole, but destroys the parasites who exploit the potential of fiat money. Parasites like (alleged) Ponzi-style fraudster Madoff and his clients, who deserve what they've now got, Mish judges.
Jesse says that "financial capitalism" seeks to use the money system to develop a dictatorial New World Order, and will be defeated when the dollar fails as the world's reserve currency.
Brad Setser wonders whether the dollar has reached its zenith; which implies that it may begin heading for its nadir.
Desperately holding back the inevitable is the US Federal Reserve, says Jim from San Marcos, who (although the Fed is refusing FOI requests) suspects that its $2 trillion in emergency loans is equally divided between support for banks, credit cards and the stockmarket. (I wondered what was being used as the robust cloth on the Dow's trampoline, and covert official support may be the answer.)
As I argued yesterday, the straightest path would be to destroy fraudulent, oppressive debt and those who introduced it into the system. For so many families, the bank is the fattest kid at their kitchen table, and nobody knows who invited him.
For a long time, I've been recasting financial issues as issues of power and freedom. If Jesse is correct, we are reaching a turning point in the battle. I hope we may soon say, as Churchill said of El Alamein, "A bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers and warmed and cheered all our hearts." It would be worth the blood, toil, tears and sweat.
Friday, December 12, 2008
History repeats itself - because it's getting old
As my select and distinguished readers now know, I'm an optimist (by the standards of unfolding reality), and I say, not so. I say, maybe 4,000 - 5,000, adjusted for CPI.
The comparison I'd urge is not with 1929-32 (stockmarket deflation exacerbated by monetary strictness), but (in inflation-adjusted terms) from January 1966 to July 1982: stockmarket deflation prolonged and partially disguised by monetary inflation; I said so here and here, last month. I maintain that the bear market began in 2000 and the symptoms were masked by the terrible extra debts taken on over the last 8 years. Karl Denninger showed us yesterday that these debts account for all the US GDP growth since the New Millennium, plus $9 trillion.
The debate about inflation and deflation continues, though from a British perspective we've seen practically the whole of the rest of the world become one-third more expensive in sterling terms, in only five months. However, Einstein's theory of relativity rejects the notion of any absolute standpoint, and we shall see next year which other currencies mimic sterling's vertiginous fall.
In these shifting times, it becomes very hard to discern real value; but however hard to measure, it exists nevertheless. There is a real bill to pay for our excesses, and I think 2008 will be seen in retrospect as the year that the global balance of power underwent a sudden tectonic shift, from West to East. Yes, the East will suffer for a while, too, but it has long been acquiring the means of production and developing its local markets, and will emerge from the crisis ahead of us.
And there will also - must also - be an intergenerational shift of power, within our Western societies. As globalization continues and real income and real house prices decline, existing debt (set in fixed terms) will become proportionately greater, until the weight is too great to bear; and the worst of it falls on the people who are also struggling to raise families and save something, however inadequate, for their old age. They cannot be crucified in this way. How can savers be taxed at 20% and workers at (effectively, on margin, including National Insurance) 40%? Real wealth must flow from one to the other, just to maintain civilization. I think either savings must be taxed more (perhaps the removal of tax exemption for some savings products will be the start), or inflation must come, though I don't know how long the play will go on before the denouement.
We did have another option, and I was only half-joking: cancel mortgage debts on a massive scale (bankrupting the banks and the bankers, and serve them right). Then, with our productive populace relatively unencumbered, it would be possible to let Western wages and prices fall to much nearer Eastern levels, and we could begin to compete.
The US economy in a nutshell
And after them? Who else could have their work outsourced? White-collar workers should not look on unconcerned. Save money while you can, while wages are still ahead of minimum spending requirements.
Meanwhile, up in the clouds, a hedge fund manager has (allegedly) admitted his business was a fraud, losing $50 billion; more than three times the car-makers' bailout fund currently under discussion.
How we got here? [by Paddington]
Much of that is due to the dearth of quantitative and scientific influence on decision-making. President Bush even down-graded the science advisor from the Cabinet.
For decades, students in the US and UK have avoided mathematics, science and engineering. Becoming a teacher meant getting an education degree, rather than knowledge of any particular discipline, as if the skills of teaching were at some mystical higher level than mere content. In business schools, students shunned accounting and finance, and flocked to management and marketing, as the former required too much mathematics and computer knowledge.
This meant a whole generation of managers unable to make decisions based on facts.
Managers in business are brothers under the skin with bureaucrats in government, and the administrators in education, all of whom make wild assertions and demands of subordinates that are completely at odds with reality.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Toll me back from thee to my sole Self
His target is the type who may not have realized that they were driving David Kelly to suicide, but probably don't much care that they did, so long as the trail was brushed. My only concern is that the public generally may be starting to feel as I do, in which case we are entering dangerous territory.
Bookends: deflation and inflation
I was right, but I didn't know why
... we haven't had an expansion in GDP over the last eight years. Congress and its organs of reporting economic "facts" have lied. We have in fact actually seen about a 10% contraction in real GDP from 2000 levels; all of the so-called "expansion" of the Bush Administration has been a lie intended to prevent recognition and working through of the recession that should have happened in 2000.
Now, I sensed this during the last 8 years and felt it coming before then, and have recently said so several times. I'm only grateful that technical whizzes like Karl have managed to spell it out. If only we had taken our lumps after the technology bust of 2000.
What went wrong? A post-match analysis of the Credit Crunch
1. Reagan's nomination of Alan Greenspan to replace Paul Volcker as Fed Chairman
2. The Repeal of Glass-Steagall and the Cult of Self-Regulation
3. Bush Tax Cuts for Upper Income Individuals, Corporations, and Speculation
4. Failure to Address Rampant Accounting Fraud Driven by Excessive and Flawed Compensation Models
5. Providing Enormous Bailouts to the Banks without Engaging Systemic Reform for the Underlying Causes of the Failure
Rude, funny, true
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Heart of Darkness
Austrian cashtronomers tracked the movement of dozens of banks circling the centres of Western economies.
The black hole in each is the equivalent of four million jobs.
Black holes are obligations whose interest is so great that nothing - including charismatic political leaders - can escape them.
According to experts, the results suggest that thriving economies form around giant debts in the way that a pearl forms around grit.
Treasury ministers on both sides of the Atlantic say that there is no reason to be concerned: provided enough cash is directed into the black holes, they will fill up and the economy will continue to revolve as normal.
Here we go
Now then, cheat China (pop. 1.3 billion, army personnel 2.3 million)- or the UK (pop. 61 million, army personnel 100,000)? Tough call...
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Time Management [Guest post by Paddington]
However, about 10 years ago, there was a study that showed that the French and German workers were much more productive per hour.
This supports my long-held belief that a typical worker averages 6-7 hours of productive work per day. Give them a short-term project and they will work harder and faster, but be less productive afterwards. Tell them that they are going to work overtime, and they will not work as hard in the regular day. Presented with too much work (for them), many will actually do less.
Realizing this is one of the things that has made my job (university teaching) better. I could do my work in less time, so that I had time for myself and my family, rather than twiddling my thumbs at my desk for 8 hours.
In short, people need time to goof off and socialize, and it makes them work better.
Monday, December 08, 2008
WeaselWordWatch: "Quantitative Easing"
Excuse me while I quantitatively ease a balloon, then stick a pin into it for a non-gradual relaxation.
The MSM take up the punishment theme
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Worrying about the wrong things
I packed in smoking over 30 years ago - but this coming year, I'd better do something about the weight.
You know you're in trouble when...
This phrase yielded an estimated 159,000 results on Google today; watch for imminent "Google result hyperinflation" with respect to this weaselly term. Sackerson is offering a prize for the first sighting of a cartoon in the MSM featuring it.
P.S. 3,210 Google-found news items have it (all dates); 970 in the past month but 1,619 in the last day (how does that statfreak happen?) The earliest news reference found via Google is July 1, 1995 - relating to China's commercial bank reform. A Communist plot, then!
Death to the paper tigers! We demand only tigers with intrinsic value!
The free market and redistribution of wealth
Okay, if we also have some other system of supporting our workers through the change, instead of import tariffs and other protectionist measures. You can't drop masses of people from a great height and expect society to remain stable.
A lot of our present arrangements - health, education, welfare - seem to me to be a fairly inefficient way of transferring wealth from the upper strata to the lower, less the cost and inconvenience of all the system servicers in between.
Why don't we get honest and open about the need for wealth redistribution, balanced with the need to encourage enterprise? Could we get rid of weaselly taxes and insidious benefit traps? All we need is some way of levelling the playing field between groups of workers in very different parts of the world, in such a way as not to force the game to be abandoned by either side. Can anyone propose a system of financial support - could some form of the Citizens' Basic Income be made to work?
Saturday, December 06, 2008
What is "Common Purpose"?
What is the "Common Purpose" of the eponymous outfit? Who exactly is this Julia Middleton, and why has she become so apparently prominent? Is it a McKinsey-type thing, or a McCarthy-type thing? Can anyone who isn't obviously a nutter tell me, in cool and rational terms?
And as for the D-word...
Even so, the Civil Liberties strand has fallen in two years from 9.12 to 8.82; and the competition seems to be weakening anyway, as the 2008 report notes:
...following a decades-long global trend in democratisation, the spread of democracy has come to a halt. Comparing the results for 2008 with those from the first edition of the index, which covered 2006, shows that the dominant pattern in the past two years has been stagnation. Although there is no recent trend of outright regression, there are few instances of significant improvement. However, the global financial crisis, resulting in a sharp and possibly protracted recession, could threaten democracy in some parts of the world.
Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2008, launched today, shows a significant worsening of the way the UK’s attitude to corruption is seen in the world. The UK’s score has dropped from 8.4 last year to only 7.7 today: the first time it has ever fallen from the high rating of more than 8 (10 is the highest a country can score on the Index).
The UK's engrained complacency over its failure to take international corruption seriously is now further exposed to public scrutiny. The UK has a wretched foreign bribery prosecution record compared to most of its G7 peers. It was strongly criticised this summer by the OECD body responsible for ensuring that members comply with the 1997 OECD Anti-Bribery Convention and may now face tougher measures by the OECD if it continues to fail.
The top 20:
(htp: Hatfield Girl)
BTW: Zimbabwe is not even in the bottom 10 of the list.
An expert writes
Friday, December 05, 2008
Jeremy Clarke's dragoman introduces a brilliant new system of classification:
The Egyptian government is 100 per cent corrupt. In other countries the government is 10 per cent corrupt or maybe 20 or 50 per cent. Here in Egypt it is 100 per cent corrupt. I am telling you.
You are invited to argue the case for one or more "other countries" to be considered as runners-up in this competition.
(Please have regard for libel law.)
China to devalue its currency?
Hurray for a radical
If deflation is not the problem, what is?
The problem is fractional reserve lending that allows banks to leverage lending 12-1 and broker dealers like the now defunct Bear Stearns and Lehman 40-1. It does not take much to cause a run on the bank when leverage is 40-1. Fannie Mae is leveraged many times more than that.
Without that excessive leverage, no one would be in trouble over falling prices. Actually everyone would benefit. The cure is not to defeat deflation, the cure is to embrace deflation and stop fractional reserve lending and the serially bubble blowing activities of the Fed.
I support abolishing the Fed and the elimination of fractional reserve lending. Those are the only long term cures to the problems we face.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
The dangers of harmony
But I've been casting about for some deeper structural reason - what allowed financiers to kid themselves that they were acting reasonably, or at least assure themselves that they had followed official guidelines and were "covered"?
So I looked for something relating to the regulation of fractional reserves, and came across references to the Basel Accords (I and II). These are an attempt to "harmonise" central banking policies in developed nations, and perhaps can serve as an object lesson (especially for EU enthusiasts) about international legislation.
Here is the conclusion of an analysis of the two Accords (highlights mine):
One very important fact to assess is the achievements and limitations of each Basel Accord. The first Basel Accord, Basel I, was a groundbreaking accord in its time, and did much to promote regulatory harmony and the growth of international banking across the borders of the G-10 and the world alike. On the other hand, its limited scope and rather general language gives banks excessive leeway in their interpretation of its rules, and, in the end, allows financial institutions to take improper risks and hold unduly low capital reserves.
Basel II, on the other hand, seeks to extend the breadth and precision of Basel I, bringing in factors such as market and operational risk, market-based discipline and surveillance, and regulatory mandates. On the other hand, in the words of Evan Hawke, the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency under George W. Bush, Basel II is “complex beyond reason” (Jones, 37), extending to nearly four hundred pages without indices, and, in total, encompassing nearly one thousand pages of regulation.
The author's concern is that the rules can permit the risk of assets in emerging markets to be understated, and as it turns out the Trojan horse came in through another gate; but in complexity lies opportunity, and in rule-following lies the illusion that personal responsibility is thereby written off.
Monday, December 01, 2008
The eyes, look at the eyes
Is it true that, like Cordelia and the Fool, Ed Balls and Nick Griffin have never been seen together?
"When the going was good"
And he's a gold bug again - and says hold it outside the US, as many have long recommended.
Cruising for a losing
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Tony Murdoch, Rupert Blair
Blair’s big secret is that he doesn’t have one
Wednesday, 26th November 2008
Sackerson reveals how he secured Tony Blair’s co-operation for his biography and discovered that this political titan has no interest in posterity. He is, at heart, a political operator
There is, on the one hand, the unparalleled national dominance in politics that Tony Blair and his New Labour have achieved. And yet, on the other, there’s an almost endearing attention-deficit lack of organisation and heedlessness that I witnessed in many years of chatting with Blair and his ministers.
The fact that I was talking so often and so openly with Blair was as good an example as any of the absence of planning and strategy that backs up one of the country’s greatest control freaks. Indeed, throughout the company, people kept saying to me (and among themselves): has he lost his mind, spilling the beans? Why is he doing this? What is he thinking?
The answer involves, I believe, New Labour’s essential political advantage and fundamental personality trait: Blair and Labour act without thinking very much. Or the only sustained thinking that goes on is about what he might be thinking. And that’s extremely hard because the man, contravening all rules of modern analytic politics, acts almost entirely on impulse — his method is all based on instinct, urge, gossip (i.e. a more or less random collection of things he’s been told), and the impelling force of immediate and casual circumstance. It’s serious ADD.
It was during his takeover in the 1990s of the Labour Party — a set of brilliantly executed strategic moves that occurred mostly without any kind of analysis about why he might be changing it and what he would be getting after he took charge — that Blair and I began our interviews. I had gone to the publisher of my last book and argued that there might be a chance Blair would agree to a long exclusive interview — the kind which, out of impatience or defensiveness, he had never granted. I sensed he might be open to the attention — that he was proud of winning the Labour Party.
Blair found himself talking to me with no plan or agreement or understanding or even time constraints. For the first several years of our interviews, he was clearly wondering how it was that I had got there. Only the fact that he is a very polite man, and conflict averse — at least in a one-to-one sense — kept him, I often felt, from tossing me out on my ear.
The vastness of an organisation like New Labour, dominating nearly every political platform in the country, makes it perceptually almost impossible not to believe that there is a vision here, a method and a far-reaching intelligence (pernicious or otherwise).
This was what I obviously tried to probe, sitting with Blair for nine months. What’s going on in there? What does he know?
To be with Blair, to view him, to get inside his head, and to understand how he does political, you have to take away all technology — that is, all the web-searches, all the data, all the correspondence, all the communications resources, that ministers everywhere rely on. Blair, at 55, can’t use a computer, doesn’t get email, can’t get his cell phone to work properly, can’t even imagine changing the variables on a spread sheet. (The fact that New Labour often bills itself as a technologically farsighted, aggressive and clever party is amusing to everyone there.) During the campaign to take over New Labour, Blair’s spies and surrogates would email Blair’s 54-year-old wife, Cherie, and she’d read to him from her mobile phone. Indeed, while many people at New Labour were trying to talk about the cross-platform synergies at New Labour and the future of electronic voting, Blair was only ever talking about the Party.
Psychologically, he is far from modern too. He can’t question his own motivations (a curious problem for a biographer). He truly doesn’t believe in interpretation. His face draws back, and he scowls in a remarkably dismissive way if you try to suggest that there might be a deeper pattern to his actions — that there might be meaning beyond living to fight another day. Accordingly, he has surrounded himself with a cadre of unanalysed people who believe it’s best to act before thinking too much. Curiously, his children are reasonably nuanced thinkers, which is perhaps one reason he thinks they are the most brilliant people in the country.
He has no historic interest — even in himself. This sets him at odds from most men of accomplishment, who generally cherish all their achievements. Blair hardly remembers his. The past has receded. He cuts himself off from it. In conversation, he often loses or transposes decades. This is only partly age. More to the point, he obviously has no use for memory. That’s a distraction. He is not demoralised by defeats. He’s not aggrandised by victories. When you interview him, you can’t, profitably, ask about what has occurred, you can only engage with him if you talk about what’s going on now. What’s on your mind this morning, Mr B? Who are you feeling competitive with today? What fly is buzzing near your face?
He is, and runs his career like, an ambitious man. He’s a dealmaker. No more, no less. No better, no worse. What he values is the ability and inclination to make split-second decisions. He’s rather proud when that ability is not slowed by too much information or explanation. He is most motivated by the last interesting thing someone told him — whether it is true is not as important as how it will read. Sitting with Blair for so many years, I’d regularly see the odd bits of information come in (my stock obviously went up when I offered him a tidbit), and be directed to a political researcher, or become part of his world-view or some instant political decision-making process. (At a cocktail party, he meets someone from Afghanistan, who suddenly informs his view of that conflict; at another party he meets someone who knows a policeman on Long Island, and that colours his view about a lecture tour in New York) He has no interest in understanding himself, because he sees himself as an everyman. He’s Mr Basic, Mr Uncomplicated; he has no airs, no fancy aspirations. He can trust his own gut. And why should he remember the past, he has to be in tomorrow’s papers? And once again beat the competition.
I have sometimes had the feeling, over the past years of talking to Blair and New Labour ministers, that his people are humouring him. That he is not so much, in Alistair Campbell’s formulation, the Sun God, who people cannot question, but instead a sort of long-running joke in which everybody at New Labour — so many of them career employees — is complicit. The joke is that this greatest of modern political men, the architect of the synergised, cross-platform, integrated, national political party, has no vision, no method, no strategy. Nor, likewise, does this man, perhaps the individual with the single most powerful political voice of our time, have any politics — save for what makes for good newspaper copy or puts money in his own pocket. Rather it’s all made up — what he buys, how he spends, what he believes, who he supports — on the fly.
In my interviews, Blair, even though a professional in the political world, was guileless — or ultimately unconcerned. It was a book, for one thing, and, as his advisers suggested to me, he might never have read one. What’s more, to think about how he might be portrayed would be to have an idea of his own self — to have to dwell on things he is incapable of or vastly uninterested in dwelling on. And yet he did it — blabbered away for years. With hardly a thought he exposed himself, his family and all his ministers to a biographer who one day happened to walk into his office. Even prospective immortality is something, at New Labour, which you just throw against the wall and see if it sticks.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Damian Green update
His Wikipedia entry says "His notorious skill is 'stonewalling' - deflecting difficult questions by 'playing a straight bat', or appearing to do so." Maybe so. But all it did - for me and the audience - was pretty much to damn him, and by implication the government.
Default is mine
A warning from history
Handy-dandy, the pigs are the farmers
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Economics doesn't describe the real world
And there I was, planning to use some of my Christmas holiday reading an economics primer.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
What is debt?
But there's also total debts (foreign and domestic) compared to GDP, in which case the US owes 4 times what it earns, and goodness knows exactly what the equivalent is here in the UK.
And then there's future liabilities - pensions and healthcare costs that have effectively been promised, and will have to be paid for decades to come. The US Comptroller General, David Walker, has been touring the US for two years like Cassandra of Troy, trying to alert the public about this. His latest reported estimate is that these promises are equivalent to a lump sum debt of $53 trillion, and rising annually by $2 - $3 trillion.
It's an unholy mess, on a scale so large that even approximate calculations seem almost irrelevant. However, I strongly suspect that it is a misrepresentation to say that the problem is principally American. If only the truth were made plain - but those in the best position to say, have the greatest incentive to remain silent, or to mislead us.
Monday, November 24, 2008
If the 2003 reflation hadn't happened?
In the above graph, I show the Dow, adjusted for CPI, up to 19 November 2008, with an extra: the gold line is the same as what actually happened from the beginning of 1966 to November 1974, adjusted proportionately to the height of the boom at the end of 1999.
Interpreted and represented in this way, even the worst of the crash so far has not caught up with the mid-70s: the Dow closed last Wednesday at 7,997 where 32 years before it would have been the equivalent of 4,911. If that period of history were to repeat itself, the Dow would take another 7 years of whipsawing towards its low of 3,988 in today's terms.
So in my view, the monetary expansion of the last 6 years or so, has merely delayed progress a little. The drunkard has had a few more to put off the hangover.
Coincidentally, the following comes by email across the Atlantic. I've seen it before, I think, but I also think it may well be largely true.
Pocket Taser Stun Gun, a great gift for the wife. A guy who purchased his lovely wife a pocket Taser for their anniversary submitted this:
Last weekend I saw something at Larry's Pistol & Pawn Shop that sparked my interest. The occasion was our 15th anniversary and I was looking for a little something extra for my wife Julie. What I came across was a 100,000-volt, pocket/purse-sized taser. The effects of the taser were supposed to be short lived, with no long-term adverse affect on your assailant, allowing her adequate time to retreat to safety....??
WAY TOO COOL! Long story short, I bought the device and brought it home.
I loaded two AAA batteries in the darn thing and pushed the button.
I was disappointed . I learned, however, that if I pushed the button AND pressed it against a meta surface at the same time; I'd get the blue arc of electricity darting back and forth between the prongs. AWESOME!!! Unfortunately, I have yet to explain to Julie what that burn spot is on the face of her microwave.
Okay, so I was home alone with this new toy, thinking to myself that it couldn't be all that bad with only two triple-A batteries, right? There I sat in my recliner, my cat Gracie looking on intently (trusting little soul) while I was reading the directions and thinking that I really needed to try this thing out on a flesh & blood moving target. I must admit I thought about zapping Gracie (for a fraction of a second) and thought better of it. She is such a sweet cat. But, if I was going togive this thing to my wife to protect herself against a mugger, I did want some assurance that it would work as advertised. Am I wrong?
So, there I sat in a pair of shorts and a tank top with my reading glasses perched delicately on the bridge of my nose, directions in one hand, and taser in another. The directions said that a one-second burst would shock and disorient your assailant; a two-second burst was supposed to cause muscle spasms and a major loss of bodily control; a three-second burst would purportedly make your assailant flop on the ground like a fish out of water. Any burst longer than three seconds would be wasting the batteries.
All the while I'm looking at this little device measuring about 5' long, less than 3/4 inch in circumference; pretty cute really and (loaded with two itsy, bitsy triple-A batteries) thinking to myself, 'no possible way!'
What happened next is almost beyond description, but I'll do my best...?
I'm sitting there alone, Gracie looking on with her head cocked to one side as to say, 'don't do it dipshit,' reasoning that a one second burst from such a tiny little ole thing couldn't hurt all that bad. I decided to give myself a one second burst just for heck of it.. I touched the prongs to my naked thigh, pushed the button, and . . HOLY MOTHER OF GOD . . WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION . . . WHAT THE HELL!!!
I'm pretty sure Jessie Ventura ran in through the side door, picked me up in the recliner, then body slammed us both on the carpet, over and over and over again. I vaguely recall waking up on my side in the fetal position, with tears in my eyes, body soaking wet, both nipples on fire, testicles nowhere to be found, with my left arm tucked under my body in the oddest position, and tingling in my legs? The cat was making meowing sounds I had never heard before, clinging to a picture frame hanging above the fireplace, obviously in an attempt to avoid getting slammed by my body flopping all over the living room.
Note: If you ever feel compelled to 'mug' yourself with a taser, one note of caution: there is no such thing as a one second burst when you zap yourself! You will not lt go of that thing until it is dislodged from your hand by a violent thrashing about on the floor.. A three second burst would be considered conservative?
IT HURT LIKE HELL!!!
A minute or so later (I can't be sure, as time was a relative thing at that point), I collected my wits (what little I had left), sat up and surveyed the landscape. My bent reading glasses were on the mantel of the fireplace. The recliner was upside down and about 8 feet or so from where it originally was. My triceps, right thigh and both nipples were still twitching. My face felt like it had been shot up with Novocain, and my bottom lip weighed 88 lbs. I had no control over the drooling. Apparently I pooped on myself, but was too numb to know for sure and my sense of smell was gone. I saw a faint smoke cloud above my head which I believe came from my hair. I'm still looking for my nuts and I'm offering a significant reward for their safe return!!
P.S. My wife loved the gift, and now regularly threatens me with it! 'If you think education is difficult, try being stupid.'
Sunday, November 23, 2008
River deep, mountain high
There's how long the market takes to bottom-out, and then also how long it takes to match its previous peak. In real terms (adjusted for CPI), here's the last two Dow bears:
1929: 3 years to hit bottom, lost 86% of its peak value, in all took over 29 years (i.e. in 1958) to match its 1929 high; then a further 8 years to reach a new record top
1966: 16 years to hit bottom, lost 73% of its peak value, in all took over 29 years (i.e. in 1995) to match its 1966 high; then a further 4 years to reach a new record top
See you back on the high slopes in 2029?
The crushing weight of debt
So if that interest rate applied to all debts in the US, it would equate to 19.2% of GDP. In other words, $19.20 out of every 100 dollars earned simply pays interest. But private borrowing costs more, so the real burden is even greater.
Worse still is the fact that debts have been rapidly increasing for years. A study by the Foundation for Fiscal Reform calculates that debt-to-GDP rose from 249% in 1983 to 392% earlier this year, an average increase of nearly 6% (of GDP) per year; actually, accelerating faster than that in the last few years.
So merely to go no further into debt, plus paying interest without ever repaying capital, would cost at least 25% of GDP. And if there were (please!) a plan to abolish all debt by the beginning of the next century (92 years away), that would add another 5% or so, bringing the total national debt servicing to 30% of GDP.
Having got to this breakneck speed, there is no difference between stopping and crashing.
I suspect there simply must be debt destruction - either slowly, in the form of currency devaluation, or quickly, in debt writeoffs and defaults.
Presumed Consent revisited
My wife points out that in England, it has always been the law that the body of the deceased belongs to the next of kin. Or has that gone by the board since the EU abolished our country's sovereign right to make its own law?
What has happened to the Common Law, Natural Justice, The Reasonable Man and the long, bloodily-won fight to assert the Englishman's rights against the overweening powers of the State?
And will these things have to be re-won by bloody resistance, one day?