Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mood As Driver (Anecdote 3)

"Out there I’m a useless guy, unemployed and cursed by my family. Here I’m a commander. My words have weight.”

A militant on the allure of an alternative to quashed ambitions re: middle class.

h/t GlobalGuerrillas

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fear and Doubt Trump Science and Facts in an Era of Mass Negative Mood

In my opinion, nuclear science and nuclear power are useful markers when trying to gauge mass sentiment. Nuclear power burst into popular imagination in the form of the devastation of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki as the world was working off the mass anger and xenophobia that had created World War II. The science itself can be complicated and the dangers are easy to exaggerate.

Nuclear power seems to follow an odd track when viewed in terms of socionomics - it is linked with the negative emotions of nuclear war, but it requires a society that embraces reason and hard work to allow it to flourish. In addition, most nuclear power plants are very large facilities requiring a reasonably efficient power grid to distribute power to power-hungry industry and citizens.

As we descend into this coming era of accelerating negativity, anger, fear and magical thinking, nuclear power is going to be a marker on where we stand as a society when it comes to reason vs. magical thinking and anger vs. hope. But it won't be clear-cut. I think also that an "us" vs. "them" mindset may erupt, where you see nuclear power becoming a goal of some states in the southeast and midwest, while other states and regions, particularly in the northeast, shun it and use some version of state sovereignty to choke it off.

Witness the recent vote by the Vermont Senate to block relicensing of Vermont Yankee 1 as an opening act in this coming drama:

Vt. Senate votes to close Yankee power plant
MONTPELIER - In a rare case of state involvement in nuclear regulation, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4 yesterday to block a license extension for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, citing radioactive leaks, misstatements in testimony by plant officials, and other problems...

Without going into radiation dose calcs, let's just say that the tritium (a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen) that has been founding leaking from pipes is not outside of regulatory standards (themselves set quite conservatively low) and none has been found in the drinking water. As for the reality of it - you could could put 100,000 times more tritium than has been found to date in a jug of water and I'd drink it down, every drop - that's how mild this stuff is.

But - and this is the big "but" for those of us that will live through the coming Crazy Years - perception is deemed to be reality. If people perceive that an evil corporation is poisoning their water with radioactive materials and if they are living in an era where fear and magical thinking is embraced more often than reason, facts, science and investigation of the claims, well, then, we get this vote to attempt to shut down a major employer and major provider of cheap electricity in an era of high unemployment and crumbling tax base.

Go figure.

There is much more to this story, including missteps and bad judgment on the part of Entergy to go along with the alarmism of the anti-nukes, but the context of social mood defines how the end-game will play out and in New England, it looks like nuclear power will be phasing out.

No, the lights won't go out (immediately) and it will just be the poor who hurt from higher electricity prices. Plus, it will mostly be blue collar workers who lose good jobs and benefits, and why would they matter to rich white folks who can afford the high cost of marginal power sources? Later on, as other power sources show their vulnerability, the loss of a reliable source of power and jobs may, just may, come back to haunt Vermonters, but frankly I don't expect them to ever admit it - once you've bought into a religious position and have that position shored up by social mood, coming down from that position can be impossible for most.

More to come on this issue. Have a good weekend.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bleak House

Not sure if the dam is breaking loose just yet, but we are seeing the meme forming. This isn't just trashing the house prior to foreclosure - this is a whole new level.

Frustrated Owner Bulldozes Home Ahead Of Foreclosure
MOSCOW, Ohio -- Like many people, Terry Hoskins has had troubles with his bank. But his solution to foreclosure might be unique.

Hoskins said he's been in a struggle with RiverHills Bank over his Clermont County home for nearly a decade, a struggle that was coming to an end as the bank began foreclosure proceedings on his $350,000 home.

"When I see I owe $160,000 on a home valued at $350,000, and someone decides they want to take it – no, I wasn't going to stand for that, so I took it down," Hoskins said...

..."I'll tear it down before I let you take it," Hoskins told them.

And that's exactly what Hoskins did.

The Moscow man used a bulldozer two weeks ago to level the home he'd built, and the sprawling country home is now rubble, buried under a coating of snow.

"As far as what the bank is going to get, I plan on giving them back what was on this hill exactly (as) it was," Hoskins said. "I brought it out of the ground and I plan on putting it back in the ground..."

Pair this with the fact that the Austin Suicide Pilot Joe Stack torched his house prior to his attack on the IRS building makes me think the American McMansion is in for a rough road as a symbol in the coming years.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mood As Driver (Anecdote 2)

Before mood shifted, such an investor uprising would have been shrugged off and ignored. These are titans of industry, creating value and enhancing shareholder returns through their brilliant leadership - how dare the proles try to bind the mouths of the kine that tread the grain?

Shell placates angry investors by freezing bosses' salaries
By Alistair Dawber, The Independent
Senior executives at Royal Dutch Shell are to have their pay frozen for at least 12 months after shareholders rejected the company's remuneration report last year.

In May, 60 per cent of investors voted against the Anglo-Dutch company's pay proposals for senior managers after the group's shares staged only a feeble recovery following the financial crisis. The energy giant responded yesterday, saying that chief executive Peter Voser and finance director Simon Henry would have their salaries frozen until next year. Both are already paid 20 per cent less than their predecessors...

...As part of the move, directors will not be allowed to pocket management bonuses unless specific, pre-arranged targets are hit. There was a fiery backlash at last year's annual general meeting when investors were told some board members would be paid large bonuses despite Shell missing targets.

Directors also face the prospect of having incentives clawed back for 12 months if performance deteriorates, while Mr Voser will now have to hold shares worth three times his salary. The reforms, which come into place after what Shell described as "extensive discussions" with investors, are designed to avoid a repeat of the ugly scenes at last year's AGM. Remuneration for 2010 will be considered at this year's meeting in May...

The corpies are going to be under assault from regulators, from angry DA's looking to make a name for themselves, from local tax authorities looking to bleed them dry as sales tax revenues continue to collapse and from investors who need a target to lash out against.

Makes one think that smaller, private companies will endure the coming storm a bit better than large public companies.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Efficiency versus Resiliency

I've been reading Barbara Tuchman's very compelling book A Distant Mirror, a sweeping narrative of, as she puts it, the calamatous 14th century. That it was. For anyone who thinks, like me, that we are headed for a crash of historic proportions, Tuchman's work provides a fantastic lesson in just how ugly things can get when an entrenched system unravels in the face of economic disruptions, climate change, plague and endemic war. Interestingly enough, Tuchman's work was published in 1978, during a significant bear market.

One topic that is not covered directly in the book, but which I keep coming back to when trying to figure out actions I can take in the face of this coming storm and that is efficiency vs. resiliency.

Growing up in the warm sunshine of the late, great bull market I usually default to libertarian ideals when it comes to economic relationships in trade, finance, manufacturing and regulation. (On a side note, as mood has changed I have noticed my own opinions morphing a bit - maybe it is a case of getting older and mellowing or because I am caught up in this mass mood like everyone else and my opinions are just as malleable as the rest of the herd.)

Efficiency and lowest cost to the consumer are results that I have almost always regarded as the "chief good" as it were. Just in time inventory systems, outsourcing and off-shoring, the hiring of consultants and contractors to fill key technical roles and other innovations that blossomed over the past couple of decades were cross-fertilized by the increasing optimism that ruled the day until the turn of the millenium and I tended to regard them as at worst necessary evils on the road to a hyper-efficient and more wealthy society.

In times of mass optimism, measures that increase efficiencies and lower costs to consumers have a lot of merit. In times of mass pessimism, I am not so sure. Or to put it another way, mass pessimism precludes the efficiencies of the free market from operating properly. Yes, free markets are always better for producers and for those who strive for liberty and justice. In times of mass pessimism, though, many men and women are no longer producers and they are driven by anger, greed and a "I gotta get mine" attitude which leads them to alter the governing structures to pervert market structures and drive money and benefits their way at the expense of the greater market. Logical efficiencies such as privatizing government functions can, in such times, lead to something more akin to strip-mining of public assets by criminal cliques than to the cost-savings and efficiencies that theory would teach.

The Response of Those Who Lived Through Hard Times

Hard times leaves an indelible impression on societies. In a prosperous, free-market era things such as agricultural subsidies are mocked and decried as nothing but a sop to pressure groups and a mechanism to keep food prices higher than they ought to be. Often they devolve into that very thing, but when first put into place, such subsidies were a reaction to people who had seen real hunger and real devastation. These programs were, in part, a legacy of past negative moods. Europeans who had seen hunger and privation, who had seen international trade and imports choked off by war, implemented strong supports for local farmers. Japanese policy-makers did the same with their rice farmers, the memory of the hard years of WWII fresh in their minds.

These policy makers were not total fools. Many surely knew that they were building in inefficiencies and higher prices. They probably felt that these were small prices to pay for some measure of resiliency in their food supply chain should war or disruption come again.

In times of pessimistic mass mood, you better be ready for disruption to come your way:

  • Just in time inventory is great - until a riot prevents delivery of parts to a factory.
  • The vast transport network which is required to distribute food is wonderful in a free market sense and has allowed for the closing of many inefficient regional bakeries, canneries and food processing plants across America and is a great way to get cheap food all across the continent - until violence and insurrection results in blown bridges, blasted railroads and breached levies that disrupt internal transport.
  • Privatization can make public services much more efficient and cheaper, until a criminal clique (whether a group of influential locals or a big multinational bankster outfit) comes in and buys both the services and the local judges and then takes in revenue while providing poor service in return - with no recourse to open, public scrutiny

Food for Thought

I'm reaching here, groping in the dark to find action items I have missed in preparing for the coming long economic winter. We are entering this phase with little to no resiliency left in our economy. The efficiencies wrung from our production and supply chains have cut out the fat, the redundancies, so necessary to keeping a network such as our economy up and running when put under stress. All of our public officials are schooled in some form of economic or political theory that prizes efficiency and low consumer costs as the highest good, at the expense of backups, of inventory, and of the producers of the goods. Our manufacturing sector is laughably reliant on China. Our ag sector is frighteningly dependent on foreign oil, as is our distribution network.

When the disruptions come, the value of inefficiencies, the value of resiliency, the value of multiple human beings capable of doing productive work, will be revealed as positive values in an age of pessimism.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Messiahs, Willing and Unwilling

In the hard times coming, people will seek answers. There is nothing new in this. What will make it a tricky and dangerous time is that we'll be looking through the lens of anger, of xenophobia, of fear and we'll be steered by the impulses that will be driving mass mood to depths of anger and despair not seen in centuries.

Right now, while we are still on the cusp of the plunge, the would-be Messiahs will be kooky, usually harmless, and sometimes unwilling:

In Internet Era, an Unwilling Lord for New Age Followers
By Scott James, New York Times
Raj Patel’s desk sits in a dusty, cement-floored nook in his garage, just beyond a parked gray Prius, near the washer and dryer. They are humble surroundings for a god.

Followers of Share International, a New Age religious sect, claim Raj Patel is the messiah Maitreya. He denies the claim, but he cannot persuade them.

“It is absurd to be put in this position, when I’m just some bloke,” Mr. Patel said...

...Mr. Patel’s journey from ordinary person to unwilling lord is a case of having the wrong résumé at the wrong moment in history. For this is a time when human yearning to find a magical cure for the world’s woes can be harnessed to the digital age’s instant access to a vast treasure-trove of personal information...

As we move deeply into this great psychological purging that the West is about to embark upon, expect the Messiahs to get angry, to demand sacrifice and blood. This is one of those wildcards that I have no clue as to how it will play.

My expectation is that at first, we'll see a polarization of attitudes typical of other stressful times faced by humanity. Many communities will see a return to barebones Christian fundamentalism, to harsh Old Testament values and I fully expect to see many a Bonfire of the Vanities erupt across America, probably live-streamed on video feeds. Others will turn to hedonism and reckless violence, figuring they have nothing to lose.

Once that phase is burned out, when the modern-day flaggelants have either died or healed from their wounds, when the hedonists have realized that crawling into a bottle or getting so stoned that they can't utter a word won't fix anything, when these "solutions" have been found wanting, that is when I fear we will see our Messiah - whether a secular overlord come to set things "right" or the eruption of a new religion poised to sweep the West - either way, the harnessing of this universal impulse to need a Messiah to guide the people will almost certainly lead to vast changes in governance and community.

Stay aware. You'll see this one coming. I'm just not sure how we can avoid the steamroller once it gets going...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Quote I Can't Wait to Revisit in Six Months

“We have control of the ship, we have a plan.”

María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, Spain’s deputy premier

h/t Calculated Risk

Friday, February 5, 2010

I am a Senior Citizen Who Has Beaten the System, at Least So Far...

Well, I'm not a senior citizen, but Gary North is and he is not blind to the coming storm.

Many of you are aware of Dr. Gary North and his writings. I highly recommend this video for anyone with a shred of hope that the retirement safety net will remain intact as this Great Bear Market grinds the Republic's finances into powder.

UPDATE: Here's a story from Fortune singing the same tune -

Next in line for a bailout: Social Security
By Allan Sloan, Senior Editor at Large
February 2, 2010

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Don't look now. But even as the bank bailout is winding down, another huge bailout is starting, this time for the Social Security system.

A report from the Congressional Budget Office shows that for the first time in 25 years, Social Security is taking in less in taxes than it is spending on benefits.

Instead of helping to finance the rest of the government, as it has done for decades, our nation's biggest social program needs help from the Treasury to keep benefit checks from bouncing -- in other words, a taxpayer bailout.

No one has officially announced that Social Security will be cash-negative this year. But you can figure it out for yourself, as I did, by comparing two numbers in the recent federal budget update that the nonpartisan CBO issued last week...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: German Edition

Check this out, courtesy the BBC:

Germany will buy 'tax evaders' list if real
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, says she will buy a list of alleged tax avoiders said to be hiding money in Switzerland - if it is a genuine one.
Up to 1,500 Germans are alleged to have stashed millions of dollars in secret bank accounts across the border.

The Financial Times Deutschland reported that the data was being offered by an IT specialist who once worked at HSBC in Geneva.

He is said to be asking $3.5m (£2.1m) for the list of names.

Some estimate it could net the German government $100m.

However, the Swiss finance ministry said it had refused to grant Germany any assistance in connection with the document, saying it was based on stolen information.

Big names

"Everything should be done to get this data," Mrs Merkel told a news conference in Berlin, as long as the information was "relevant".

Two years ago, Germany paid $7m for a similar list of German citizens who had money in Liechtenstein, a country that was known as a tax haven...

This may seem like a good idea. And short term, who knows, it might "benefit" the German Treasury. But let's think about the consequences.

Germany pays for these stolen names, just as they did for a similar list out of Lichtenstein awhile back. They get to squeeze some Germans who wanted to hide some money and get a one-time tax windfall.

In doing so, our Teutonic friends are helping legitimize hackers and information theft for profit. Every code jockey who has harbored dreams of getting rich off hacking now has real numbers to work with. Please note, it looks like this is not some black hat guy who hacked into the bank computers, but an internal techie - the run of the mill tech specialist with a certain amount of skill, sure, but no one who can crash into a well-defended system. This looks like a "company man" gone rogue. That is a big steaming bowl of not good for any multinational corpie to worry about.

The Germans are in a way legitimizing the nightmare scenarios for IT security professionals. Things like:

  • Internal code jockeys stealing the flow rates from Mexican oil wells and selling them to the drug cartels so they know which pipelines to either bomb, threaten to bomb (unless cash is paid to them by PEMEX) or to tap into and bunker the oil from.
  • Hackers or insiders getting ahold of coal train car schedules and selling them to eco-terrorists interested in disrupting the coal supply to power plants.
  • Bank programmers who parse through the wire transfers and locate the rather blatant flows of drug money into the Western banking system and threaten to go to the DEA with the data - unless they get a cut.

Today it is a Swiss IT guy who stole some names and sold them to a government. What about tomorrow, when it is an IT guy working for the German Government who hacks in and sells information about asylum seekers who relocated to Germany to "interested" governments? Or the "non-profits" like the Gary McKinnons of the world who hack into databases looking for evidence of UFOs or black ops budget items or a whole host of other special interest information strong-arm artists who just want to set data free?

Germany runs a big risk here. As we move into years of anger towards central authority, Germany, among many other "developed" nations, are going to reap the whirlwind of this kind of behavior. They feel like they want the information, so they go get it. Others may feel the same about German government secrets and go after those as well.

Trust in privacy and information secrecy will be shattered across the globe, just as socionomics predicts.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Satire Satisfies at the Moment

Satire will certainly satisfy some of the bubbling anger out there right now, as this PR firm clearly sees in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision to end restrictions on the ability of made-up persons (corpies) to exercise their freedom of speech via campaign contributions:

But like all weak drugs, satire can only satisfy for so long until a certain jadedness sets in. Then, as anger and dysfunction continue to build, the herd needs stronger and more satisfying outlets for the building rage.

Satire now, sort of the near beer for emotional venting. Molotov cocktails come later, when it is time to get down to business.