Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pruned Revenues

The coming downturn is going to show the truly ugly face of the Nanny State.  We've endured decades of layer upon layer of absurd laws and once mood turns towards anger and local revenues get squeezezd, this kind of revenue generation activity by local jurisdictions is bound to increase.

Albemarle Road church fined $100 per branch for excessive tree pruning
By Brittany Penland, The Charlotte Observer
Every two to three years, Eddie Sales trims and prunes the crape myrtles at his church, Albemarle Road Presbyterian Church.

But this year, the city of Charlotte cited the church for improperly pruning its trees.

"We always keep our trees trimmed back because you don't want to worry about them hanging down in the way," said Sales, a church member.

The church was fined $100 per branch cut for excessive pruning, bringing the violation to $4,000...

..."We are trying to be pro-active and not trying to fine people excessively," [Senior Urban Forester for City of Charlotte Land Development Division Tom] Johnson said.

In cash-strapped cities across the country, expect every silly law on their books that contains a provision for a fine to be dusted off and inspectors sent out to enforce them.

Monday, May 30, 2011

What Will Get Corrected When Mood Plunges Again (Part 2)

Sunrise in Joplin on May 23rd, somewhere near 20th and Connecticut (I think...)

I had planned for this post to be about the failed prophecy by Harold Camping that the world begin its end on May 21st, discuss some reasons why his claim went viral and received so much mainstream attention (socionomic reasons, noting the timing of his previous calls in 1988 and 1994, his own significant holdings and advertising campaign, etc.) but that got overtaken by events, as they say, and I want to touch on another aspect of modern society that could get corrected in a big way

I spent that weekend suited up and deployed as part of Missouri Task Force One. MOTF-1 is an Urban Search and Rescue team.  I am a hazardous materials and rescue specialist for the task force and we were participating in a national level exercise simulating a response to a massive earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.  I spent the evening of the 21st, when the world was supposed to be ending sitting on the tarmac of the Spirit of St. Louis Airport (where our base had been established) eating MREs with a bunch of twenty-somethings made up of firefighters, emergency medical techs and the occasional odd engineer or other specialist like myself thrown in.  We had flown in on a C-130 and flew out on the 22nd the same way.

A few hours after getting back (and without washing the clothes in my grab and go bag) my phone goes off and the task force got deployed to Joplin to help with search and rescue after the tornado.  After a quick emails to my boss, I was off again, this time in a van.  We hit Joplin around 2:30 a.m. on Monday morning and got to work.

I have never seen such devastation.  If you caught the news accounts of it, you probably saw more than I did.  Suffice it to say it was unlike anything I've ever seen.

However, this post is not about the suffering in Joplin, which is quite real, or what little part I was able to play to help mitigate it.  As we swept through a vast area that looked like the aftermath of a massive bombing campaign, it struck me just how much of this response was a product of the great era of positive mood and the wealth that flourished during that era.

MOTF-1 is unusual for a USAR team in that we are an all-volunteer force.  Deployments in-state, like that to Joplin, mean we must take vacation or time without pay or otherwise work it out.  Federal deployments (where we go down to the Gulf Coast, for instance, to help out with a hurricane) do pay a stipend, but that also depends on the feds having the money to pay that stipend.  The expense to assemble, deploy and support a USAR team in the field can be substantial (I don't have any public figures for the Joplin deployment at the moment).  This expense is on top of the already-incurred expense of training a large team in urban search and rescue techniques, maintaining the large caches of equipment, warehousing everything, buying gas and food, etc.  It is like supporting a small brigade at the end of the day.

And we were not the only specialized teams in the field.  "Strike Teams" from fire departments in St. Louis and Kansas City were also on hand, along with small teams from large numbers of fire departments all over Western Missouri.  Each of these teams has vast numbers of hours and money poured into them on a yearly basis just to support the equipment and training, not to mention the cost to deploy them in the field.

Then you have the logistics involved in coordinating the response and working out the plan to somehow demolish the vast miles of damaged structures and then rebuild.

This was on top of having wrapped up the National Level Exercise that weekend - having deployed our trucks, flown a portion of the team on Air Guard C-130s, conducting exercises in the St. Louis metro area and then getting home.

I just kept thinking - what happens when mood turns and the money dries up?  Fire Departments are going to be prime targets for cost cutting in the coming era of austerity and anger.  Many departments have racked up excellent pension plans (well, excellent on paper) and salary structures.  The rising anger and turn towards fiscal austerity is going to ravage those plans.  The fire departments themselves have hugely expensive equipment and trucks to maintain and preventive maintenance is always a place where the budget knife cuts deep.  A lot of equipment is purchased with federal matching money.  What happens when that money is not there?

If you are reading this blog then you know where I am going with this.  What will the response look like when a massive tornado hits a city in 2014?  Or a hurricane storms ashore in South Florida in 2015?  What equipment or personnel will be available to be sent across a state or across the country to help out?

One thing I must note, the outpouring of support and the number of volunteers wanting to help was very impressive.  That part of the American Spirit will remain intact, I think, but the core group of professionals or trained part-timers (like me) could very well shrink dramatically in the coming years, as well as the resources to coordinate teams in the field and the logistics of cleaning things up, counting the bodies, helping the wounded, etc.

This brings us back to preparedness and finding a way to have local networks of people available to be mutually supportive during a crisis.  After seeing the scale of the devastation in Joplin, I have a bad feeling that the natural disasters in the years to come may wind up being far more deadly and have longer term impacts that what we are used to today as we will have fewer resources to throw at them and more anger and suspicion to overcome.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What Will Get Corrected When Mood Plunges Again (Part 1)

Running on the assumption that we are in the early years of a Supercycle A-B-C correction, here at FutureJacked HQ we have been trying to puzzle out all the aspects of society, politics and financial arrangements that could "correct" deeply during these years of turmoil, along with stock market prices. Correct in this case may mean deep reform, total destruction or revolution.

An article from Stratfor caught my eye today that illustrates one item that has been in a more or less bull market for a couple of centuries - good governance:

Corruption: Why Texas is Not Mexico
By Scott Stewart | May 19, 2011
As one studies Mexico’s cartel war, it is not uncommon to hear Mexican politicians — and some people in the United States — claim that Mexico’s problems of violence and corruption stem largely from the country’s proximity to the United States. According to this narrative, the United States is the world’s largest illicit narcotics market, and the inexorable force of economic demand means that the countries supplying the demand, and those that are positioned between the source countries and the huge U.S. market, are trapped in a very bad position. Because of this market and the illicit trade it creates, billions of dollars worth of drugs flow northward through Mexico (or are produced there) and billions of dollars in cash flow back southward into Mexico. The guns that flow southward along with the cash, according to the narrative, are largely responsible for Mexico’s violence. As one looks at other countries lying to the south of Mexico along the smuggling routes from South America to the United States, they too seem to suffer from the same maladies...

Basically, it is written with the same confidence (hubris?) that is found in much of the analysis of the U.S. position in the world by the current crop of political and academic elites. This piece ends on a note of gosh, those Mexicans sure have tried hard to root out corruption and drug war violence, but since they don't have the Anglo-Saxon tradition and institutions of the U.S., they have failed in comparison to the U.S.

I actually don't disagree with much of the analysis. It is the usual thorough job by Stratfor, with a lot of excellent context and background material you can find through the links and it provides an outstanding snapshot of the strategic conditions on the ground today. That said, it suffers, in my opinion, from the lack of a larger framework (such as socionomics) that is necessary to use the information to try and understand how events will unfold in the future.

I would have kept mcuh of the analysis in place, but changed the title of the article to "Corruption: Why Texas is Not Mexico - Yet."

Yes, I will be the first to say that the governing systems that have been in place in the United States have in many eras (including this one) have left much to be desired. Corruption has been a feature of this, of course, along with the initial toleration of slavery in the early years of the Republic, and occasional outbursts of tyranny, bad laws and outright abuse of power.

Taking all of that as a given, it has still been a period of remarkably good governance when you sit back and compare it to what came before. When you think of the corruption and tyranny endemic to the feudal system, or the excesses and rivers of blood sparked under communism or fascism, or look at the Thirty Years War or the Warlord Period in China, you gain at least a grudging respect for how we in the United States have conducte our affairs. There has always been much to do to improve it, but at least we have an ideal of just government to judge the actions of the powerful against and some (limited) means of correcting the system when it is out of balance with the ideal of justice.

While these institutions are robust, all things pass. With the massive changes coming our way, we could see the authority of the central government called into question in ways not seen since 1860. A bankrupt Nanny State that has promised all things to all people and is also dedicated to a "War on Drugs," that all of a sudden can't pay the local cops, the sherriffs, the judges or border patrol agents, may very well watch with horror the decay of authority that the Mexicans watched happen in their country over the course of the 1990s and 2000s.

The U.S. has had institutions with a long track record of relatively honest peformance (the nature of the laws being enforced aside), but those institutions and that track record could very well crumple in the face of the Great Bear headed our way. The vast profits in illegal drugs serve as a powerful solvent to honest insitutions. Once the heat gets turned up on the cops and the courts with a downturn in mood and a devastation of the budget outlays for law enforcement, then the reaction towards corruption and violence could be fierce and far more swift than most analysts think possible.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Thoughts on the Coming Crime Wave

A recent article in the New York Times sparked some thoughts on personal safety in an era of anger, alienation, stress and widespread poverty:

Costly Hairstyle Is a Beauty Trend That Draws Thieves’ Notice
by Timothy Williams, New York Times
The thieves pulled the iron bars out of the windows, outsmarted the motion detector that would have triggered a burglar alarm and did not give the safe or cash register a second look.

Instead they went straight for what was most valuable: human hair. By the time the bandits at the My Trendy Place salon in Houston were finished, they had stolen $150,000 worth of the shop’s most prized type, used for silky extensions...

Now, the specific trend above is probably just an example of criminals finding a new niche to exploit, but it does make one step back and think about what kinds of items might be put at risk in a world rife with:

  • 35% unemployment
  • A populace angry at being "abandoned" by a broke Nanny State that had promised to lavish goods and money on them in hard times and in their old age
  • Boiling ethnic tensions in places like the American Southwest and large urban areas that "justify" groups waging low-intensity war on one another
  • Large numbers of well-trained ex-soldiers and military contractors in dire economic straits

I don't want to go on a Mad Max riff here, but I do want to be thinking from a socionomic perspective about the very real dangers that will be on the rise should mood plunge in the coming year. Things that on the surface, or to the untrained eye, don't have value in today's twilight world that is still wheezing along on the fumes of a multi-century bull run, may morph into objects that people will be killed over in the years to come.

If people are getting killed over hair extensions, just what might happen to someone who is known (and I emphasize known here) to have a large cache of food stored in their basement in a world where the federal food stamp program has ended and unemployment benefits stopped being paid long ago? Or what about that fancy solar panel on the roof of that nice McMansion in a suburb that now has 50% unemployment?  Or the guy using lots of gasoline to power his riding mower in an era of shortages due to war in the Middle East, while his neighbors yards have grown into miniature jungles?

Don't dwell on the fear or the doomer part of this, but do be thinking in terms of camouflage, protection and community policing. The future is almost certainly going to be a more chancy and dangerous place. You can either fear it or plan for it. I suggest the latter.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Future

Blogging has been sparse here at FutureJacked. Partially due to family issues - the arrival of a tiny new member of the family (that's a peppy rally in mood last year gets me...) - and partially from expanded responsibilities at the day job, trying to work my paper on socionomics and nuclear power into shape (which has now taken on much new complexity) and, frankly, a bit of inertia as I wait to see how things play out with this rally.

There is really only so much that can be done until we see which way this enormous edifice built up by centuries of positive mood tilts and collapses.

That said, this kind of thinking, waiting for reality to catch up with my model, as it were, can be detrimental to taking action. Opportunity abounds, even in the worst of times and I think I've fallen into a trap not really all that different from the 2012ers or the folks waiting on the Rapture. Now, I haven't sold all my possessions and moved off to the woods (but since I live in Missouri, the woods ain't too far away) and I have not run up all my credit cards because I expect a giant solar flare caused by the galactic alignment to wipe out all computer databases, but I also haven't been as aggressive in moving towards a long-held goal - launching a start-up. Partially this is because I am quite convinced that the model I am using to estimate where we as a society are headed (socionomics) is accurate and is pointing towards multi-generational downturn. Now, let's be clear, it is not the Socionomics Institute's fault that I have not launched a new radiotherapeutics business or taken a shot at commercializing nuclear batteries. It is my fault for getting caught up in some of the more subtle aspects of how mass mood drives us all. In this case, I have been indulging in one of the polarities that aggravates me the most: Magical Thinking.

It has been easy to watch the collapse from a few years ago morph into this exceptional rally we've seen. This rally has allowed me to keep my salaried position, allowed me to pick up a house cheap, it has allowed me to tell myself that all I need to do is just wait for the final wipe-out and then I can hop into something new and establish a firm or some other organization that could build up into something exceptional in the years to follow.

The fact that I've lost years of learning how to run an organization is now becoming apparent. I'm good at what I do, but I've never been the final decision-maker in an organization. I've built what others needed, but never had to be part of the core team that had to make that key decision. Though I blog about social mood, I have not always been that great at keeping myself from getting caught up in that mood.

I was too immature back in the 1990s to realize it was raining credit soup and all I needed to do was grab a bowl and head over to a bank or VC fund. It was all going to crash and crash hard, I told myself. Well, yes it did, but millions of dollars were made and great companies were founded during the Bubble Epoch and while I did fine, I didn't make generational money by any stretch of the imagination. And all those folks who started up bubble tech companies? Well, at least they gained experience in running a business, they made contacts in the world of big money, and they have learned many lessons that will help them down the road.

That a storm is on the horizon is apparent, in my opinion, but just trying to wait it out and then spring to action won't get me - or any of us - where we want to go. Building something now, even if it just the shell of what you think it could become, is important. That is one of the great secrets of the Universe - to take action. Form that corporation or that non-profit. Go down to the county courthouse and spend hours talking with people, looking over records and getting an idea where the productive farm land or a good site for low-cost rental housing that could turn into a source of passive income for you. Get plugged in.

Why am I inflicting this latest bit of self-analysis on you? Well, in short, don't be like Mike. Yes, I think we are headed towards a retracement in financial and social affairs that will be studied for centuries to come. Just because a storm may knock over the trees in a carefully planted orchard does not mean that Ben Franklin's advice is not relevant - the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now. Things have worked out more than fine for me, but looking back with the eye of experience shows many paths that could have led to even better destinations.

Most of you reading this probably have already taken the kinds of steps I talk about above. If you have not, well, get to it. I don't mean you should launch into a venture requiring massive amounts of cheap leverage that relies of consumer spending, but I do mean, if you have not already, start taking those risks that will set you apart from the others when the hard times truly settle over the country. It will be much harder to take those risks when the downturn is in full, frightening swing. Do it under the glow of the rally and it will be easier to keep it going during the downturn.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Pardon the Interruption

Setting aside socionomic interpretations of his rise, decline and death and the long-term damage done to the Republic by our response to the attacks in 2001, pardon me whilst I revel for a bit in sheer jingoistic bliss.

Bin Laden Killed by CIA-Led SEALs Team, Death Hailed as Blow to Al Qaeda
from Fox News
Years of tracking the world's most-wanted terrorist culminated Sunday afternoon, when a CIA-led Navy SEALs squadron of just a few dozen men stormed Usama bin Laden's compound and killed him.

President Obama announced the results of the top-secret operation late Sunday night, calling it the most significant blow to Al Qaeda to date. Within hours, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed more than 3,000 people was buried at sea...