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In my previous post of this series, I remarked that most discussion of the employment effects of robotics/artificial intelligence/etc seems to be lacking in historical perspective…quite a few people seem to believe that the replacement of human labor by machinery is a new thing.
This post will attempt to provide some historical perspective on today’s automation technologies by sketching out some of the past innovations in the mechanization of work, focusing on “robots,” broadly-defined…ie, on technologies which to some degree involve the replacement or augmentation of human mind/eye/hand, rather than those that are primarily concerned with the replacement of human and animal muscular energy…and will discuss some of the political debate that took place on mechanization & jobs in the 1920s through 1940s.
Throughout most of history, the production of yarn for cloth was an extremely labor-intensive process, done with a device called a distaff, almost always employed by women, and requiring many hours per day to generate a little bit of product. (There even exists a medieval miniature of a woman spinning with the distaff while having sex…whether this is a comment on the burdensomeness of the yarn-making process, or a slam at the love-making skills of medieval men, I’m not sure—-probably both.) Eventually, probably around 1400-1500 in most places in Europe, the spinning wheel came into use, improving the productivity of yarn-making by a factor estimated from 3:1 to as much as ten or more to one.
Gutenberg’s printing press was invented somewhere around 1440. I haven’t seen any estimates of its effect on labor productivity, compared with the then-prevailing method of hand copying of manuscripts, but surely it was at least 1000 to 1 or more.
The era from 1700-1850 was marked by tremendous increases in the productivity of the textile trades. The flying shuttle and other advances greatly improved the weaving process; this created a bottleneck in the supply of yarn, which was partly addressed by the invention of the Spinning Jenny–a foot-powered device that could improve the yarn production of one person by 5:1 or better. Power spinning and power looms yielded considerable additional productivity improvements.
An especially interesting device was the Jacquard Loom (1802), which used punched cards to direct the weaving of patterned fabrics. In its initial incarnation, the Jacquard was a hand loom: its productivity did not come from the application of mechanical power but rather from the automation of the complex thread-selection operations previously carried out by a “Draw Boy.”
Turning now to woodworking: in 1818, Blanchard’s Copying Lathe automated the production of complex shape–a prototype was automatically traced and copied. It was originally intended for making gunstocks, but also served in producing lasts for shoemakers, and I believe also chair and table legs.
Another major advancement in the clothing field was the sewing machine. French inventory Barthelemy Thimonnier invented a machine in 1830, but was driven out of the country by enraged tailors and political instability. The first commercially-successful machines were invented/marketed by Americans Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, and Isaac Singer, and were in common use by the 1850s.
By the late Victorian period the sewing machine had been hailed as the most useful invention of the century releasing women from the drudgery of endless hours of sewing by hand. Factories sprung up in almost every country in the world to feed the insatiable demand for the sewing machine. Germany had over 300 factories some working 24 hours a day producing countless numbers of sewing machines.
The beginnings of data communications could be seen in gold ticker and stock ticker systems created by Edison and others (circa 1870) , which relayed prices almost instantaneously and eliminated the jobs of the messenger boys who had previously been the distribution channel for this information. Practical calculating machines also appeared in the 1870s. But the big step forward in mechanized calculation was Hollerith’s punched card system (quite likely inspired in part by the Jacquard), introduced in 1890 and used for the tabulation of that year’s census. These systems were quickly adopted for accounting and record keeping purposes in a whole range of industries and government functions.
Professor Amy Sue Bix, in her book Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs?, describes the fear of technological unemployment as silent movies were replaced by the ‘talkies’. “Through the early 1920s…local theaters had employed live musicians to provide accompaniment for silent pictures. Small houses featured only a pianist or violinist, but glamorous ‘movie places’ engaged full orchestras.” All these jobs were threatened when Warner Brothers introduced its Vitaphone technology, with prerecorded disks synchronized to projectors. “Unlike other big studios, Warner did not operate its own theater chains and so had to convince local owners to screen their productions. Theater managers would be eager to show sound movies, Harry Warner hoped, since they could save the expense of hiring musicians.”
The American Federation of Musicians mounted a major PR campaign in an attempt to convince the public that ‘living music’ was better than ‘canned sound.’ A Music Defense League was established, with membership reaching 3 million…but the ‘talkies’ remained popular, and the AFM had to admit defeat. A lot of musicians did lose their jobs.
Here’s a new factory for making automobile frames, specifically designed to minimize the need for human labor. The CEO of the company that built it actually said, “We set out to build automobile frames without people.”
At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances. Conveyors take the plates through punching, pressing, assembling, and nailing machines, as well as a machine that can insert 60 rivets simultaneously in each frame. A set of finishing machines then rinse, dry, spray-paint, and cool the frames. Aside from a few men moving frames between conveyor belts, the floor routine of the plant requires almost no hand labor.
And today’s robotics and artificial-intelligence advances go far beyond automating routine manufacturing labor and take over the kind of cognitive functions once thought to be exclusive to human beings. Here, for example, is a new AI-based system that displaces much of the thought-work which has been required of the people operating railway switch and signal installations:
The NX control machine is in effect the “brain” of the system. It automatically selects the best optional route if the preferred route is occupied. It will allow no conflicting routes to be set up. It eliminates individual lever control of each switch and signal.
Pretty scary from the standpoint of maintaining anything like full employment, don’t you think?
One of the hallmarks of the housing recovery has been the historically low level of new-home construction, particularly at lower price points attainable for first-time buyers. Although a wide range of factors are at play, from slow wage growth to higher regulatory costs, builders say the FHA limits in many markets are shutting out potential buyers.
The challenge is particularly acute in California, which has the nation’s highest upfront fees for new construction, according to housing-research firm Zelman & Associates. Fees to pay for roads, sewers, schools and other infrastructure in California markets average between $40,000 and $72,000 per home, according to the firm’s research, compared with an average of $2,600 in Houston. [emphasis added]
Since I eat out a lot and have frequented restaurants of every stripe over the last few decades I am always interested in restaurant efficiency. The restaurant industry is brutally competitive and it always disturbs me when I eat at a restaurant and enjoy it but then fear that the restaurant won’t survive because it lacks a critical mass to make enough money.
There is an Italian restaurant called “Grassa” in Portland (you can see their logo, below). They are attached to another restaurant called “Lardo”.
These restaurants serve high-end food (not luxury cuisine, but far from fast-food) and alcohol but have communal tables and always seem to be packed with a line out the door. They are different because their menu is a large signboard (dishes are frequently updated) when you enter the space and you order your food at a central register and they hand you a “flag” to bring with you to your table. Then when your food is ready, they bring it out to you and take away your flag and you eat your meal. Drinks are brought out first (and appetizers) and you can also flag down one of the servers to order more drinks (although most people tend to have one drink with their meal and then leave, based on a few times that I’ve sat at the restaurant). You can also order your food “to go” at Grassa, as well.
This model drives peak efficiency at the restaurant. There are many fewer tables than you would need at a “standard” restaurant due to the communal standing tables and the food comes out as soon as it is available (the servers don’t have to take orders, they just serve the food as soon as it is up and return back to the kitchen area, unless they are bussing a table that just left). They don’t have to take reservations or mess with any of that complexity, either.
When hiring someone for an important job, it is of course important to assess whether or not that person has the skills you think are necessary for doing the job well. But it’s important to also assess what they think are the important aspects of the job, and make sure these line up with what you think are the most important job factors. You want to know what they are ‘passionate’ about, to employ a currently-overused term.
And when hiring an executive, keep in mind that you are also likely gaining access to his network of former employees, customers, suppliers, consulting firms, etc. A similar but even more powerful dynamic plays out in politics, as Daniel Henninger of the WSJ reminds us:
A recurring campaign theme of this column has been that the celebrifying of our presidential candidate obscures the reality that we are not just just electing one famous person. We will be voting into power an entire political party, which has consequences for the country’s political direction no matter what these candidates say or promise.
By that measure, there is a reason not to turn over the job of fighting global terrorism to the Democrats. They don’t want it.
So, what are they key aspects of the Presidential job that needs to be done over the next four years, and how do the candidates and their beliefs about what is important stack up against those factors? Here’s my list..
The suppression of radical Islamic terrorism. Henninger is completely correct: the Democrats don’t want this job. Henninger notes that during a House hearing in 2005, Guantanamo Bay was denounced (almost entirely by Democrats, I am sure) as ‘the Gulag of our times.’ Whereas GOP Congressman Mike Pence correctly responded that the comparison was ‘anti-historical, irresponsible and the type of rhetoric that endangers American lives.’
Henninger continues: ‘Dahir Adan invoked Allah while stabbing his way through the Minneapolis mall. Both Mrs Clinton and President Obama consistently accuse their opponents of waging a war on all practitioners of the Islamic religion. Presumably, if instead we were being attached by Martians, they’d say any criticism of Martians was only alienating us from all the People on Mars. The problem is we aren’t getting killed by Martians or Peruvians or Finns but by men and women yelling ‘Allah Akbar’…Virtually all Democratic politicians refuse to make this crucial distinction.’
The protection of free expression. As long as we have free speech and a free press, there is a possibility that our array of problems can be solved. But once this crucial feedback connection is cut, problems of all kinds are likely to compound themselves until catastrophe happens.
Remember, Hillary Clinton’s response to the Benghazi murders was to blame them on an American filmmaker exercising his Constitutional rights, and to threaten to have him arrested. Which threat she was indeed able to carry into execution.
And note that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party is closely aligned with the forces on college campuses which are creating a real nightmare for anyone–student or professor–who dissents from the ‘progressive’ orthodoxy or who even demonstrates a normal sense of humor.
There is a very strong tendency among Democrats to call for the forcible government suppression of political dissidents, and to carry this belief into action when they can get away with it: the witch-hunt in Wisconsin and the IRS persecution of conservative organizations and individuals being only two of many examples. More here.
Trump is by no means ideal on this metric: he is thin-skinned and has shown himself to be very litigious. But he is far preferable from a free-expression standpoint to Clinton and the forces that she represents.
Economic growth. Clinton herself would surely like to see economic growth, if only for political reasons. But there is in the Democratic Party a very strong strain that believes America is too wealthy, that our people have too many luxuries, that we need to be taken down a peg. I have even seen attacks by ‘progressives’ on the existence of air conditioning. The Democrats are generally willing to sacrifice economic growth on the altar of environmental extremism and to serve their trial-lawyer clients. Sexual politics represents another cause for which growth is readily sacrificed by Democrats–remember when Obama’s ‘shovel-ready’ stimulus package was first mooted, there was an outcry from left-leaning feminist groups concerned that it would be too focused on ‘jobs for burly men.’
And whatever her ‘small business plan’ may be in her latest policy statement, Hillary has an underlying dismissiveness to those small businesses–the vast majority of them—that do not enjoy venture capital funding. Remember her remark, when told back in the Bill Clinton administration, that aspects of her proposed healthcare plan would be destructive to small businesses? Her response was: “I can’t be responsible for every undercapitalized small business in America.” No one was asking her to be responsible for them, of course; only to refrain from wantonly destroying them.
It is important to note that many of the top Democratic constituencies don’t really need to care, on a personal level, about economic growth. Tenured academics have salaries and benefit packages which are largely decoupled from the larger economy. Hedge-fund managers often believe they can make money as readily in a down market as an up market. Many if not most lawyers are more dependent for their incomes on the legal climate than the economy. Very wealthy individuals may care more about social signaling than about money per se, given that they already have so much of the latter. And the poor and demoralized will in many cases care more about transfer payments than about the growth of the economy.
Improving K-12 Education. Much of the nation’s public school system is a disaster. There is no chance that Hillary would would care enough about fixing this system, and preventing or at least mitigating its destruction of generation after generation, to be willing to take on the ‘blob’…the teachers’ unions, the ed schools…these being key Democratic constituencies. Also: the Democratic obsession with race/ethnicity has led to demands from the Administration that school disciplinary decisions must follow racial quotas. Policies such as this, which would surely continue under a Clinton administration, make it virtually impossible for schools to maintain a learning environment for those students who do want to learn.
The current state of K-12 education is a major inhibitor to social mobility in America. Anyone who claims to care about the fate of families locked into poverty, while at the same time supporting a Hillary Clinton presidency, is either kidding themselves or straight-out lying.
Posted by Kevin Villani on 24th September 2016 (All posts by Kevin Villani)
When testifying in 2010 before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission into the financial crash, then Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke recommended only one reference, Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (2009), presumably for the narrative that insufficient money printing in the aftermath of the Great War lead to the next one. Right idea, wrong narrative!
The US homeownership rate peaked at a rate well above the current level almost a half century ago mostly funded by a system of private mutual savings banks and savings and loans. The historical justification for federal “secondary market” agencies was political expediency – exemption from now obsolete federal, state and local laws and regulations inhibiting a national banking and mortgage market. Now government-run enterprises account for about 90% of all mortgages, with the Fed their primary funding mechanism, what the Economist recently labeled a de facto nationalization.
The Historical Evolution
How did the private US housing finance system repeatedly go bankrupt? To quote Hemingway: Gradually, then suddenly. The two competing political narratives of the cause of financial market crises remain at the extremes – either a private market or public political failure – with diametrically opposite policy prescriptions. The politician-exonerating market failure narrative has not surprisingly dominated policy, with past compromises contributing to the systemic financial system failure, the global recession of 2008 and subsequent nationalization.
The Great Depression stressed the S&L system, but the industry’s vigorous opposition to both federal deposit insurance and the Fannie Mae secondary market proved prescient as the federally chartered savings and loan industry eventually succumbed by 1980 to the federal deposit insurer’s perverse politically imposed mandate of funding fixed rate mortgages with short term deposits and competition from the government sponsored enterprises.
The S&Ls were largely replaced by the commercial banks. To make banks competitive with Fannie and Freddie, politicians and regulators allowed virtually the same extreme leverage, in return for a comparable low-income lending mandate – CRA requirements leading to a market dominating $4 trillion in commitments to community groups to whom the Clinton Administration had granted virtual veto power over new branch and merger authority.
The Financial Crisis of 2008 and the aftermath
The Big Short by Michael Lewis and more recent movie portrayed not just banker greed but the extreme frustration of those shorting the US mortgage market stymied by a housing price bubble many times greater than any in recorded US history that refused to burst. The reasons: 1. the Fed kept rates low and money plentiful, and 2. whereas banks would have run out of funding capacity, the ability of Fannie and Freddie to continuously borrow at the Treasury’s cost of funds regardless of risk and their HUD Mission Regulator requirement to maintain a 50% market share kept the bubble inflating to systemic proportions.
The Obama Administration fully embraced the alternative private market failure narrative in Fed policy, regulation and legislation:
To partially ameliorate the effects on the real economy of disruption to the global payments mechanism the Fed had to bail out the banking system. QE1/2/3/4 and ZIRP (zero rates), now NIRP, did this by re-inflating the house price bubble, postponing defaults while allowing banks risk-free profits. The Fed – and taxpayers – would lose more than the entire S&L industry did should rates rise by a comparable amount if it marked its balance sheet to market.
Regulators had to appear to punish the banks. In response to paying hundreds of billions of dollars in what the Economist labeled “extortion” – some of which ironically went to populist political action groups – and the subsequent oppressive regulatory regime, U.S. commercial banks are exiting the US mortgage market in spite of ongoing profits enabled by extreme leverage.
One legislative centerpiece, the Dodd Frank Act passed in July 2010 in direct response to the financial crisis, doubled down on political control of financial markets without addressing the future of Fannie and Freddie. The other, Obamacare, enacted four months earlier, was similarly premised on regulating private health insurers to make health insurance simultaneously cheaper and more widely available.
The Long Term Consequences
Bernanke’s focus on choosing the narrative was useful, but the political choice of the market failure narrative appears to reflect convenience rather than conviction. The direct taxpayer costs of implicit or explicit public insurance and guarantees come with both a whimper – tax savings amounting to tens of billions annually due to the deductibility of interest costs – and a bang – future taxpayer bailouts generally delivered off-budget.
Fannie and Freddie conservatorship deftly avoided debt consolidation while dividends reduced reported federal deficits. The student loan market has also been de facto nationalized, with potential unbudgeted losses totaling hundreds of billions. Obamacare was similarly premised on regulating private health insurers to make health insurance simultaneously cheaper and more widely available, but under-budgeted health insurance subsidies predictable caused massive losses and health insurers are now withdrawing from the market.
Monetary policies caused household savings to stagnate as returns to retirement savings evaporated. Defined obligation public pension funds were all rendered technically insolvent when funding is valued at current market returns rather than the assumed rate as much as ten times that. The failure of the economy to grow per capita was explained as the “new normal”. But politicians made no attempt to reflect the implied technically insolvency of public pensions or Social Security and Medicare.
Private firms fail, but private markets rarely do. Public protection and regulation makes firms “too big to fail” until markets fail systemically. The current and projected future public debt bubble is unsustainable, and financial markets will eventually ignore the accounting deceptions and pop it. The relative weakness of other sovereign debt is delaying the inevitably, making The Really Big Short a good title for a Michael Lewis’s sequel. Politicians and central bankers will again say “nobody saw this coming”. What then?
==== Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath. This article was originally published at FFE.org
Investing has changed significantly during the 25 or so years that I have been following both the market and also the tools available for an investor to participate within the market. The following trends are key:
The cost of trading and investing has declined significantly. Trades used to cost more than $25 and now are essentially free in many cases. Mutual funds used to have “loads” of 5% or more standard when you made an investment, meaning that $100 invested only went to work for you as $95. These sorts of up-front costs have almost totally been eliminated
ETFs have (mostly) replaced mutual funds. ETFs “trade like stocks”, meaning that you can buy and sell anytime (mutual funds traded once a day, after being priced with that day’s activity) and they don’t have income tax gains and losses unless you actually make a trade (mutual funds often had gains due to changes in the portfolio that you had to pay taxes on even if you were just holding the fund)
CDs and Government Debt are all electronic. You used to have to go to a bank for various governmental bond products or to buy a CD. Now you not only can buy all of this online, you can choose from myriad banks instantly rather than settle for whatever your main bank (Chase, Wells Fargo, etc…) offers up to you
Interest Rates are Near Zero. One of the key concepts in investing is “compound interest”, where interest is re-invested and even small, continuous investments held for a long time can end up amounting to large sums (in nominal terms, because inflation often eats away at “real” returns). However, with interest rates basically near zero, you need to earn dividend income or take on more risk (i.e. “junk bonds”) in order to receive any sort of interest income. There is no “safe” way to earn income any more
Hillary is clever to go after individual companies. If she attacked the pharma industry as a whole, it could unite politically in response and perhaps gain political support from other industries that would reasonably see themselves as similarly vulnerable. But individual companies have no defenses against this kind of attack. By singling out one victim she discourages other industry players from doing anything in response, because any company or industry group that responds risks being targeted in the future.
She has done this kind of thing before. She will probably keep doing it because it’s politically effective. Her attack on Mylan destroyed a large amount of wealth, and probably not just for Mylan’s shareholders. Today Mylan’s CEO is groveling in the media. As with past political attacks by Hillary and others on vaccine manufacturers, yesterday’s attack on Mylan will discourage pharma companies from introducing valuable new products and will reduce the availability of current products. We will probably see more of this kind of extortionate behavior by the federal govt if she is elected, because that’s how the Clintons operate and because a Hillary administration would appoint more lefty judges and DOJ and regulatory officials who would go along with it.
At the store they offer plain, vanilla and chocolate soy milk. Chocolate is the only flavor that’s any good IMO. Other customers seem to agree as chocolate is always in short supply and sometimes sold out by the time I get to the store. It seems obvious they should stock more chocolate but they never do.
I complained a couple of times to guys in the dairy department and once to a manager. They didn’t understand what the problem was so I stopped complaining. When they have chocolate on the shelf I load up.
Today I took two cartons of chocolate and couldn’t reach a third. One of the stock guys climbed up on the shelf and got it for me. He good-naturedly said that it’s great stuff, it flies off the shelves. I thanked him and mildly suggested the store should stock more chocolate because it’s the most popular flavor. He said that, on the contrary, people who like chocolate should be more considerate and leave some for the other customers. He added that there is a God upstairs and He is watching. I believe this man missed his calling. He could have been a successful bioethicist.
If you want to slay the mistaken talk about the end of human employment, hold a contest. Come up with labor demand boosting ideas that we do not engage in today because we either don’t have enough people or don’t have enough money to do it. Weigh jobs that don’t require much intelligence or education as more valuable than those requiring high education/intelligence. Within a year I predict enough entries to be submitted to put the entire world to work multiple times over.
It is a bit embarrassing to think about things we are too poor to do. This makes these jobs invisible to us today. By creating a contest and an artificial market for these ideas, they become visible and we turn from despair at the jobless future to wondering how we can become efficient enough to afford to do all these wonderful things.
Let’s prototype the contest here, among friends (and a few special adversaries and maybe even some enemies), and maybe we can roll it out later on a larger scale. The winner will receive a microscopic amount of fame, and also a virtual certificate, not suitable for framing.
What are the things that we collectively and individually can’t afford–but might be able to afford given higher levels of productivity and national income–that would meaningfully affect well-being and human satisfaction? Define “things” as broadly as you like. Consider both things that could become more affordable due to productivity improvements in a specific industry, and things whose creation might not by itself be meaningfully improvable from a productivity standpoint but which people could better afford given an upward trend in overall productivity and income.
Every day, there are articles and blog posts about how quickly robots are replacing jobs, particularly in manufacturing. These often include assertions along the lines of “robots are replacing human labor so rapidly and so completely that it doesn’t really matter whether the factories are in the US or somewhere else.” There are also many assertions that robotics and artificial intelligence will triumph so completely that we must accept that we will permanently have a huge unemployed population who will need to be paid a “basic income” of some sort from the government.
This May, there were breathless headlines about how Foxconn, which is Apple’s primary contract manufacturer, was replacing 60,000 workers with robots–indeed, in some tellings, had already replaced them. If you google “foxconn 60000 workers”, you will get about 130,000 hits.
But the story, however, is false; indeed, it did not even originate with Foxconn but rather with some local Chinese government officials who wanted to promote their area as “innovative.”
There has also been a lot of coverage of robotics at Adidas, which is trying to use automation to improve the labor productivity of shoe-making to the point that it can be done economically in high-wage countries such as Germany. This article on Adidas also cites the Foxconn “60,000 jobs” assertion.
One key pair of numbers is missing from the stories I’ve seen on the Adidas project: the ratio of human workers to shoes produced, with and without the addition of the robotics. You can’t really judge the labor-reducing impact of the project without these numbers. In this Financial Times article, Adidas is quoted as saying, entirely reasonably, that they will need to get further into production with their new factory before developing meaningful productivity numbers. The article also cites Boston Consulting Group as estimating that by “2025 advanced robots will boost productivity by as much as 30 per cent in many industries.” Thirty percent is a very significant number, but it’s a long, long way from a productivity increase that would imply that factory jobs don’t matter, or that we’re going to inevitably have a very large permanently-unemployed population.
There are a lot of very significant innovations taking place in robotics and AI, but the hype level is getting a little out of hand. And it’s important to remember that automation is not a new phenomenon. For example, a CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine tool is a robot, albeit it might not look like the popular conception of one, and these machines, together with their predecessor NC (numerically controlled) machines, have been common in industry since the 1970s. One thing that articles and blog posts on the topic of robotics/AI/jobs could benefit from is a little historical perspective: do today’s innovations really represent a sharp break upwards in labor productivity, or are they more of a continuation of a long-term trend? And how, if it all, is the effect of these technologies appearing in the productivity statistics?
The drop in homeownership is largely due to a delay in homebuying by the millennials, who have the lowest ownership rate of their age group in history. Millennials are not only burdened by student loan debt, but they have also delayed life choices like marriage and parenthood, which are the primary drivers of homeownership.
Why have today’s young people, as compared to young people in the recent past, delayed buying property, marrying and having children?
“While the millennial homeownership rate continues to decline, it’s important to note that the decrease could be just as likely due to new renter household formation as it is their ability to buy homes,” wrote Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist at Trulia. “Certainly low inventory and affordability isn’t helping their efforts to own, but moving out of their parents’ basement and into a rental unit is also a good sign for the housing market.”
Why are many of today’s young families choosing to rent rather than buy their homes?
But let’s go even further. Even if you could prove that, on balance, free trade is an unquestionable economic benefit, people might still prefer to be measurably poorer if that’s the price that must be paid to maintain their traditional social and political cultures. (This has even more relevance in the case of the EU, because the EU actually has power. Imagine if NAFTA had an unelected Commission in Ottowa or Mexico City that could impose laws on the United States.) Perhaps people don’t regard their economic interests as important as their national or cultural interests. It doesn’t matter what elite opinion thinks the people’s most important interests are. In a democratic society, ultimately, it only matters what the people think they are. People get to determine their own priorities, and not have them dictated by elites. The people get to answer for themselves the question, “In what kind of country do I want to live?”
Of course, I would argue that we don’t have truly free trade or, increasingly, a free economy in the United States. The Progressives always look at the rising income inequality and maintain that it’s the inevitable result of capitalism. That’s hogwash, of course, and Proggies believe it because they’re dolts. But the problem in this country isn’t free trade—we have precious little of it—or unrestricted capitalism, since we have precious little of that as well. The issue behind rising income inequality isn’t capitalism, it’s cronyism. Income isn’t being redirected to the 1% because capitalism has failed, it’s happening because we abandoned capitalism in favor of the regulatory crony state and its de facto collusion between big business/banking interests and a government that directs capital to favored political clients, who become “too big to fail”. It doesn’t matter, for instance, whether the president is a Democrat or Republican, because we know the Treasury Secretary will be a former—and future—Goldman Sachs executive.
Franks’s post is very well thought through and ties together the main themes that appear to be driving US, British and European politics. It’s worth reading in full if you haven’t yet done so.
I’m surprised with all the sturm und drang of the brexit vote reaction in Scotland, it seems like everybody has missed entirely the easiest way for Scotland to rejoin the EU without a messy period of independence. It could apply for admission to the nation of Ireland based on their common historical roots.
The likelihood of this actually happening given the political stars of today is approximately zero. What I find interesting is the reason why the idea is so far out there that it wouldn’t even be brought up. If an independent Scotland has difficulty making a go of it, why is a Scotland tied to the English and out of the EU superior than a Scotland tied to the Irish and inside the EU?
The Orlando killer was not alone. He was a true believer and other believers in the mission of Islam inspire him. Neither he nor any of his predecessors or future companions are to be explained by psychology, economics, or sociology. They are to be explained by taking their word for what they are doing. If the President of the United States or the British Prime Minister, the media, the professors, the clerics, cannot or will not understand this reality, we cannot blame ISIS and its friends. They are also realists who understand where ideas and reality meet, sometimes on a battlefield in Iraq, sometimes in a night club in Orlando.
Shortly before the Brexit vote, writer Frederick Forsyth wrote about the basic character of the EU: Government by deception:
You have repeatedly been told this issue is all about economics. That is the conman’s traditional distraction. This issue is about our governmental system, parliamentary. Democracy versus non-elective bureaucracy utterly dedicated to the eventual Superstate.
Our democracy was not presented last week on a plate. It took centuries of struggle to create and from 1940 to 1945 terrible sacrifices to defend and preserve.
It was bequeathed to us by giants, it has been signed away by midgets.
Now we have a chance, one last, foolishly offered chance to tell those fat cats who so look down upon the rest of us: yes, there will be some costs – but we want it back.
A former ‘big proponent’ of the EU has this to say:
To be fair, the EU’s main problem has always been its troubled relationship with democracy…This contempt for the will of the people might still be perceived as tolerable if the leaders otherwise seemed sensible – but now that someone as bad as Merkel calls the shots in EU, we’re reminded of just why having perpetual democratic safeguards is so important…the EU’s contempt for European voters and its current attempts to shut down dissenting voices bodes ill for its ability to course-correct on its own. If the EU is to be saved, it first needs to be humbled, nay, outright humiliated in such a manner that no-one can doubt that recent developments can’t be allowed to continue.
My impression is that the best way to understand the next stage of the current market cycle is to recognize the difference between observed conditions and latent risks. This distinction will be most helpful before, not after, the S&P 500 drops hundreds of points in a handful of sessions. That essentially describes how a coordinated attempt by trend-followers to exit this steeply overvalued market could unfold, since value-conscious investors may have little interest in absorbing those shares at nearby prices, and in equilibrium, every seller requires a buyer.
Imagine the error of skating on thin ice and plunging through. While we might examine the hole in the ice in hindsight, and find some particular fracture that contributed to the collapse, this is much like looking for the particular pebble of sand that triggers an avalanche, or the specific vibration that triggers an earthquake. In each case, the collapse actually reflects the expression of sub-surface conditions that were already in place long before the collapse – the realization of previously latent risks.
One thing I have noticed over the years is when there is a crisis, it’s a really bad time to pass sweeping legislation. The momentum and justification for legislation comes from fear. “We don’t want that to happen again”, supporters say. For example, 9/11 happens and we get the Department of Homeland Security which is mostly a waste of money and allows the government to pry into all kinds of places it shouldn’t.
Dodd-Frank is a result of the financial crisis. There are so many bad actors in this crisis that it’s hard to list them all, but the root cause was the implicit backing government gave Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac-along with legislation and regulation that encouraged bad behavior. Sure, the ratings agencies were paid by the big banks and slanted the playing field. The big banks knew exactly what they were doing with the mortgages. But, without the implicit backing of government, the game never gets played.
Here are some data points:
Before Dodd-Frank 75% of banks offered free checking
After Dodd-Frank 25% of banks offered free checking
Small business costs are up 15% to comply with new regulation
15% less credit card accounts, and a 200 basis points more in cost
Remember, many small businesses get started by using credit cards. You might think they are stupid. But why should you import your financial/moral compass on them. Maybe they see the annual percentage rate credit card companies charge as cheap compared to the opportunity that lies ahead of them.
In the state of Missouri, there were 44 banks with less than $50M in assets. Prior to Dodd-Frank they were profitable. Post Dodd-Frank, 26/44 are losing money and will either go out of business or be consolidated. Your local community bank which is often the lifeblood of local capital is dead. How many other states are like Missouri? It’s no wonder small town rural America is having a tough go in the Obama epoch.
Dodd-Frank tried to make central party clearing mandatory for all transactions in the OTC market. Professor Craig Pirrong has blogged brilliantly about this and other aspects of Dodd-Frank. It works for a few, but not for all. This makes it more expensive to hedge risks. Businesses pass along the cost to consumers. In many cases, clearinghouses have to become the actual counterparty to the hedge. This stops commerce and more importantly has created more too big to fail institutions. Those too big to fail clearinghouses are now backed by the full faith and credit of the American taxpayer, you.
These are great points and Jeff’s post is worth reading in full.
Posted by Trent Telenko on 3rd June 2016 (All posts by Trent Telenko)
In my two previous blog posts here and here I talked of a new extended flow oil fracking technique coming on-line that resulted in a lot of drilled uncompleted wells (DUC) and the population of such wells (~5,000). In the comment section of one of those columns I speculated that we have a top end on oil prices where “turn on a dime fracking” will cut in at a price point of $50 a barrel
We now have a “flaming datum” for that speculation, oil having just bumped -HARD- into the $50 a barrel roof for world oil prices. The 5,000 DUC Frack-log is being activated with — I strongly suspect — the new extended play oil fracking technique.
It is being reported in various places that the US rig count jumped from NINE RIGS in mid-May to 325 last week and there was no change from 325 rigs this week. That is a 36 fold increase in rig count in a week!!
Based on figures I’ve gotten from those in the industry, the range of production you can expect from those wells, depending on the geology, length of the laterals (6,000 to 8,000 feet) and the number of fracking stages (200′, 300′ or 400′) will result in initial barrel per day production of between 400 and 800 barrels a day per fracked well (with a very, very rare 1,300 barrel a day play from time to time). So we are looking at between 130,000 to 260,000 barrels a day of American oil fracking production arriving in the next few months.
Compared to Saudi production, 130,000 to 260,000 barrels of oil a day represents between 1.3% and 2.5% of the Saudis’ daily oil flow. The number of DUCs activated to provide that production amount to 6.5% of the frack-log. And all that for what amounts to Zero “CAPEX” (capital expenditure), plus the operating expenses of worker wages, the rental price for existing, out of service, oil fracking rigs, and oil tanker trucks to move product to rail heads or oil pipelines.
Now you know why the Saudis didn’t agree with OPEC oil production cutbacks this week. The Saudis maxing out their oil production is no longer about stopping American oil frackers. The Saudis’ long term regime survival strategy amounts to being the “Last Petro-State Standing.”
The Saudis — like everyone else inside the Big Oil economic paradigm — simply cannot compete with that sort of rapid to market, low cost & low risk oil. The Saudis’ highest priority now is to keep their customers as long as they can, because if they lose them they may never get them back.
In his Foundation series of books, Isaac Asimov imagined a science, which he termed psycho-history, that combined elements of psychology, history, economics, and statistics to predict the behaviors of large population over time under a given set of socio-economic conditions. It’s an intriguing idea. And I have no doubt much, much more difficult to do than it sounds, and it doesn’t sound particularly easy to begin with.
Behavioral modeling is currently being used in many of the science and engineering disciplines. Finite element analysis (FEA), for example, is used to model electromagnetic effects, thermal effects and structural behaviors under varying conditions. The ‘elements’ in FEA are simply building blocks, maybe a tiny cube of aluminum, that are given properties like stiffness, coefficient of thermal expansion, thermal resistivity, electrical resistivity, flexural modulus, tensile strength, mass, etc. Then objects are constructed from these blocks and, under stimulus, they take on macro-scale behaviors as a function of their micro-scale properties. There are a couple of key ideas to keep in mind here, however. The first is that inanimate objects do not exercise free will. The second is that the equations used to derive effects are based on first principles, which is to say basic laws of physics, which are tested and well understood. A similar approach is used for computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which is used to model the atmosphere for weather prediction, the flow of water over a surface for dam design, or the flow of air over an aircraft model. The power of these models lies in the ability of the user to vary both the model and the input stimulus parameters and then observe the effects. That’s assuming you’ve built your model correctly. That’s the crux of it, isn’t it?
I was listening to a lecture on the work of a Swiss team of astrophysicists the other day called the Quantum Origins of Space and Time. They made an interesting prediction based on the modeling they’ve done of the structure of spacetime. In a result sure to disappoint science fiction fans everywhere, they predict that wormholes do not exist. The reason for the prediction is simply that when they allow them to exist at the quantum level, they cannot get a large scale universe to form over time. When they are disallowed, the same models create De Sitter universes like the one we have.
It occurred to me that it would be interesting to have the tools to run models with societies. Given the state of a society X, what is the economic effect of tax policy Y. More to the point, what is cumulative effect of birth rate A, distribution of education levels B, distribution of personal debt C, distribution of state tax rates D, federal debt D, total cost to small business types 1-100 in tax and regulations, etc. This would allow us to test the effects of our current structure of tax, regulation, education and other policies. Setting up the model would be a gargantuan task. You would need to dedicate the resources of an institute level organization with expertise across a wide range of disciplines. Were we to succeed in building even a basic functioning model, its usefulness would be beyond estimation to the larger society.
It’s axiomatic that anything powerful can and will be weaponized. It is also completely predictable that the politically powerful would see this as a tool for achieving their agenda. Simply imagine the software and data sets under the control of a partisan governing body. How might they bias the data to skew the output to a desired state? How might they bias the underlying code? Might an enemy state hack the system with the goal to have you adopt damaging policies, doing the work of social destruction at no expense or risk to them?
Is this achievable? I think yes. All or most of the building blocks exist: computational tools, data, statistical mathematics and economic models. We are in the state we were in with regard to computers in the 1960s, before microprocessors. All the building blocks existed as separate entities, but they had not been integrated in a single working unit at the chip level. What’s needed is the vision, funding and expertise to put it all together. This might be a good project for DARPA.
Another major reason the shale boom isn’t over is the large number of drilled but uncompleted wells waiting to be brought into production. There is an estimated 5,000 in the U.S. which can be quickly brought to market when the price of oil is high enough to reward it. Some companies have been completing them for some time, and more are being completed in 2016.
There are a lot of implications in that number. Starting with the fact that new oil & gas rig counts are going to be minimal for some time. And the hard economic fact that major politically event driven oil price spikes are going to be extremely short and will drop below 50 dollars a barrel within weeks to three months, given how fast these North American “DUC” wells can be fracked to bring product to market.
This new age of “banked” cheap oil plays, and the resultant oil price stability, will see off both the “Big Oil” economic model and the political/corporate elites that live by it.
Dr. Pippa Malmgren, founder of DRPM Group, former US Presidential Adviser and alumna of the London School of Economics, makes some very insightful connections between the breakdown of responsible economic policy in the USA and the increase of global warfare, from China and the South China Sea to Russia in the Ukraine.
She also explains that things like inflation don’t just happen like bad weather or something, they’re choices made by policy makers as a method of defaulting on debt.
If you people in emerging markets are experiencing knock-on effects from our (inflationary) policy, that’s your problem…It’s our dollar, and your problem! …They’re view is, I’m taking enough pain, you can’t expect me to ask my people to take even more pain by dealing with a global financial crisis and now demand has collapsed..you can’t ask me to inflict more pain. What is the end result? When central banks are trying to create inflation, a normal side effect is that hard asset prices go up…we’ve seen record all time prices for stock markets, for property, we actually seen record all time prices for things like proteins, which are particularly important in an emerging market context. Emerging market workers are spending 40%-70% of their income for food and energy, so price movements in this area matter.
Suddenly, all these pressures, all these problems are bearing down on these few smart people sitting in the West Wing who we think can solve this. And they’re speaking in a language that is highly technical, highly mathematical, it makes it very difficult for the general public to engage in the question. They’re told, Don’t worry about quantitative easing, it’s all in your interest! And they’re going, Yeah but my Cadbury Creme Egg, I’m getting less of those, and my rent is going up, and I can’t get a job still. But there’s a mismatch between the language the public wants to speak to engage in these issues and the language in which the policy discussion is conducted. And that a gap exists in understanding, What are the consequences of the choices that being made on our behalf?
A highly worthwhile use of an hour or so of your time.
(I posted this review four years ago…given the continued economic difficulties faced by many Americans, and the political implications thereof, this seems like an appropriate time for a rerun)
I’ve often seen this 1932 book footnoted in histories touching on Weimar Germany; not having previously read it I had been under the vague impression that it was some sort of political screed. Actually it is a novel, and a good one. The political implications are indeed significant, but they’re mostly implicit rather than explicit.
Johannes and Emma, known to one another as Sonny and Lammchen, are a young couple who marry when Lammchen unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Their world is not the world of Weimar’s avant-garde artists and writers, or of its risque-to-outright-degenerate cabaret scene. It is far from the world of a young middle-class intellectual like Sebastian Haffner, whose invaluable memoir I reviewed here. Theirs is the world of people at the absolute bottom of anything that could be considered as even lower-middle-class, struggling to hold on by their fingernails.
When we first meet our protagonists, Sonny is working as a bookkeeper–he was previously a reasonably-successful salesman of men’s clothing, working for the kindly Jewish merchant Mr. Bergmann, but a pointless quarrel with Bergmann’s wife, coupled with a job offer from the local grain merchant (Kleinholz) led to a career change. Sonny soon finds that as a condition of continued employment he is expected to marry Kleinholz’s ugly and unpleasant daughter, never an appealing proposition and one which his marriage to Lammchen clearly makes impossible. Lammchen is from a working-class family: her father is a strong union man and Social Democrat who sees himself as superior to lower-tier white-collar men like Sonny.
When Sonny and Lammchen set up housekeeping, their economic situation continually borders on desperate. Purchasing a stew pot, or indulging in the extravagance of a few bites of salmon for dinner, represents a major financial decision. An impulsive decision on Sonny’s part to please Lammchen by acquiring the dressing table she admires will have long-lasting consequences for their budget.
The great inflation of Weimar has come and gone; the psychological damage lingers. Sonny and Lammchen’s landlady cannot comprehend what happened to her savings:
Young people, before the war, we had a comfortable fifty thousand marks. And now that money’s all gone. How can it all be gone?…I sit here reckoning it up. I’ve written it all down. I sit here, reckoning. Here it says: a pound of butter, three thousand marks…can a pound of butter cost three thousand marks?…I now know that my money’s been stolen. Someone who rented here stole it…he falsified my housekeeping book so I wouldn’t notice. He turned three into three thousand without me realizing…how can fifty thousand have all gone?
Inflation is no longer the problem, unemployment is. There are millions of unemployed, and those who do hold jobs are desperately afraid of losing them and will do anything to keep them.
Posted by Trent Telenko on 15th May 2016 (All posts by Trent Telenko)
It isn’t often you see the death of a major worldwide industry. Last week I saw the death of the “Big Oil” economic model. It just died at the hands of Texas oil frackers who have developed a new “disruptive technology” that has made obsolete all the pillars of technology underpinning large, vertically integrated oil companies. More importantly, the same is true of all the petro-states that nationalized Big Oil’s assets in the 1960s to make all the state oil companies around the world today.
I found this out doing my day job last week as a Defense Department quality auditor visiting a mid-sized oil service company diversifying into federal contracts. The meeting was about issues with the contract they won and touched on others they have bid on. As a side bar at lunch the following points about their main business came up:
1. Oil field spending has died. Rig count in the USA is the lowest it has been since 1940.
2. One oil rig controller company these folks worked with saw a year over year drop of 72% in its business.
3. Another company they supplied had their “Cap-X” budget drop from ~$400 million for 2015-2016 to little over $30 million for 2016-2017.
4. One drilling company they supplied went from 120(+) new wells last year to _12_ this year.
5. This supplier sold a lot of copper tubing for “frack-log” drilling. That is the drilling of holes in good oil-bearing rock without fracking rock for oil immediately — and here is the new part — to take advantage of a new long-flow fracking technique.
While most of the points above are due to the Saudis’ oil price war on Texas frackers. An ex-Big Oil geologist I know put it this way —
The entire reason for the price drop was because the Saudis wanted to destroy fracking in the United States in order to keep us dependent upon them in order to keep them getting a free defense. The Saudis will have to diversify and start spending money on defense before the price goes back up, or they will be in serious trouble.
The technique in Point #5 above marks another “fracking revolution” that is of growing importance to the USA. This new fracking energy revolution will upend the world order as we know it. Political winds willing, America may well be a net hydrocarbon exporter in five to eight years.
Explaining why that is requires some background in Texas oil fracking.