President Choomwagon

President Obama’s teenage gang called themselves the Choom Gang, choom being their slang word for marijuana. They developed a marijuana-oriented culture:

As a member of the Choom Gang, Barry Obama was known for starting a few pot-smoking trends. The first was called “TA,” short for “total absorption.” To place this in the physical and political context of another young man who would grow up to be president, TA was the antithesis of Bill Clinton’s claim that as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford he smoked dope but never inhaled.

Along with TA, Barry popularized the concept of “roof hits”: when they were chooming in the car all the windows had to be rolled up so no smoke blew out and went to waste; when the pot was gone, they tilted their heads back and sucked in the last bit of smoke from the ceiling.

When you were with Barry and his pals, if you exhaled precious pakalolo (Hawaiian slang for marijuana, meaning “numbing tobacco”) instead of absorbing it fully into your lungs, you were assessed a penalty and your turn was skipped the next time the joint came around.

They even called their Mystery-Machine-style VW van the Choomwagon:

I don’t have a problem with Obama — or anyone else — smoking dope. As far as I am concerned, consenting adults have the liberty to do whatever they like so long as they don’t hurt others, or take their liberty or property.

I don’t have a problem with Obama — or anyone else — defining themselves by smoking dope.

I have a problem with hypocrisy.

Not only did Obama use marijuana in his youth, he also used cocaine, and reportedly crack. Today around 400,000 Americans are jailed for non-violent drug related offenses. That’s 400,000 outside of the workforce who could be out working and producing, instead of burdening the taxpayer, who pays to create profits for well-connected corporations in the prison-industrial complex.

Put more simply, there are more black people in prison as a result of the drug war today than there were slaves in 1850.

What’s President Obama — as a black man and a drug user — doing about that? There are still thousands of people being arrested for nonviolent drug offenses who are facing life in prison.

President Obama’s signature  policy in this area has been the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the previous 100:1 sentencing discrepancy between crack (predominantly used by blacks) and powder cocaine to 18:1, as well as eliminating the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. So now the courts will be 18 times tougher on urban blacks using crack than they are on Wall Street traders (etc) using powder cocaine? Am I supposed to think that that is better?

No. He is willing to keep jailing nonviolent citizens who did nothing more than ingest or possess a narcotic, and deny them their liberty. He is willing to enforce racist laws and policies that lock up and criminalise a disproportionately high number of minorities, at a huge cost to the taxpayer. He is willing to deny medical marijuana patients the medicine their doctors have prescribed. He is willing to maintain the drug laws and the drug war, that (lest we forget) are the thing that are empowering and enriching the Mexican drug smuggling cartels and urban criminal gangs, and creating huge violence and thousands of deaths throughout Latin America.

As Milton Friedman wrote:

If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.

There is no logical basis for the prohibition of marijuana. Our failure to successfully enforce these laws is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in Colombia. I haven’t even included the harm to young people. It’s absolutely disgraceful to think of picking up a 22-year-old for smoking pot. More disgraceful is the denial of marijuana for medical purposes.

But the thing that tears me up most is the rank hypocrisy. President Obama is a hypocrite who won’t even fight to legalise nonviolent behaviour that he himself proudly and overtly practised. If only he hadn’t been so lucky; those unjust drug laws that he won’t fight to repeal would likely have prevented him from ever being President, and he might instead be on probation working at Footlocker.

A President with integrity or compassion would fight tooth and nail to end this. Ron Paul — who has never used illegal recreational drugs — has vowed that as President he will pardon nonviolent drug offenders, give them back their liberty, and the right to keep the fruits of their labour, and save taxpayers a $15 billion-per-year bundle of cash by ending the waste and destruction of the war on drugs. Drug abuse should be treated as a social-medical problem. The war on drugs is an economic drain and a threat to our liberty.

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Economics for the Muppet Generation

Mark McHugh of Across the Street provides a succinct summation of the problem America faces:

McHugh continues:

  • From 1947 to 1974 US income per capita grew more than National debt per capita 25 times.
  • In the last 30 years, National debt per capita has grown more than income per capita 24 times.
  • The last time income per capita grew more than national debt per capita was 2001.
  • Ben Bernanke arrived at the Federal Reserve in 2002.

So simple, even a muppet can understand what the problem is, right?

Not exactly. We know what the problem is: national incomes aren’t rising, even while we get deeper and deeper into hock trying to maintain our standard of living. We know that this pattern is totally unsustainable; unless incomes rise, that debt will become increasingly impossible to service. What is less clear is the cause of this stagnation.

So what changed between 1990 and 2005 that led the nation debt per capita to so quickly overtake national incomes per capita?

While I am mindful that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, that data fits pretty beautifully. The explanation for this trend would be that as America has become more and more consumptive, and less and less productive that more and more capital went offshore to pay for consumption, and thus less and less contributed to the national income, even as Bernanke ponied up trillions in new reserves, and even as the shadow banking system created trillions in pseudo-money.

So where’s America’s money?

Here:


So is this a criticism of free trade? Should America have been more protectionist of her industries and her domestic manufacturing? Not necessarily; what the Washingtonian elites refer to as “free trade” is heavily subsidised. The status quo that Washington has made seems to heavily favour China and disfavour America. Imports from China are subsidised by American military largesse; every dollar America pushes into its military-industrial complex pushes shipping costs like insurance a little lower. So while labour costs in the Orient are naturally cheaper (due to population density, and development level), that doesn’t necessarily mean that Chinese goods are naturally cheaper in the American market. Under a genuinely free system — where America was not subsidising shipping costs — would made-in-America be more competitive compared to Chinese goods? Would China have built up a less  mountainous supply of American cash? I think so.

Bread & Circuses & Antiprosperity

If I was a mathematical economist — and I have very, very good reason not to be — I would try to create a formal model for what I call antiprosperity.

What is antiprosperity? It is a strange effect. I hypothesise thus: as nations (and to a lesser extent, people) become more prosperous, they tend toward greater fragility. In other words, fat times create weakness. This is not a universal law, because there are some exceptions. It is more of a tendency. The children of the strong, the hard-working or the wealthy often grow up lazy and stupid and conceited. People who keep winning don’t learn about their weaknesses, and without being aware of their weaknesses their weaknesses can fester and develop into glaring cracks.

An example of antiprosperity is the global system of derivatives. By creating a system of side bets, market participants could “hedge” against any undesired eventualities (for example, shopping chains dependent upon high consumer turnout could create an option on weather — if the weather was poor, and thus their sales were down, the option would payoff, mitigating their losses). By 2008, over $1 quadrillion of derivatives had been created to hedge against inflation, rate spikes, weather, price changes, defaults on debt, climate change, and almost anything imaginable. The problem was that if a counter-party with a large amount of derivatives on their balance sheet fails, then those “assets” become worthless. Any liabilities go unpaid, and so other companies who have agreed to contracts with the bust counter-party may themselves become illiquid due to their losses with the bust counter-party. This can quickly cascade into systemic meltdown. So, to recap, a system designed to “stabilise” global markets — and, let us not forget, was once prophesied as the end to systemic risk — ends up destroying them through unprecedented systemic risk..

I am still trying to understand what causes this mechanism. I think human life tends to be characterised by a steady process of building and breaking. As we learn skills we face setbacks, and failures, we learn from our mistakes and we fix our weaknesses. Humans once had no choice but to work for their food.  Taking away this gradual process — say, by creating a system that guarantees a constant and steady stream of food that requires no work to fulfil — creates a weakness, because the skills necessary to fulfil the pre-existing need become rusty. Western civilisation has become so good at feeding itself that it creates huge surpluses of goods and food. People don’t need to learn to feed themselves. Many people — who take the welfare route to “prosperity” (left-wing readers — yes, this includes bankers, defence contractors, and other corporate welfare recipients) — don’t even need to learn to work. They just suck up the handout and go on their merry way.

This tidal wave of prosperity hides a sickness inside, and we are seeing the first symptoms: overflowing bellies. Why learn the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness when it is easier to sit on your ass, stuffing your face with junk food? After, all the global resource infrastructure that pulls oil out of the ground in the middle east, refines it, ships it in oil tankers to America, and creates petrochemical-based fertilisers that are used to grow crops, produce (what can loosely be described as) food and transport that food to the consumer will always exist, won’t it? Readers are advised to know where their next meal is coming from — and their next meal for six months or a year — if the global system of trade were to break down.

To become stronger we must seek volatility, and to some extent, failure. When I was learning to play the guitar, I didn’t get better by playing pieces I could already play. I got better by seeking out failure by trying to play pieces and measures that were too difficult for me. Failure is beneficial and useful, because we can learn from it. Weakness is beneficial and useful, because we can learn from it.

How can governments and businesses learn the lesson of antiprosperity? Well, Steve Jobs seemed to know a thing or two about it. He was famed for his management style, whereby he lashed employed with vicious criticism to keep them on their toes. Failure and weakness built strength.

Governments should learn to keep welfare nets — both corporate and social — to a minimum. While the vulnerable (e.g. children, the aged, and the severely disabled) should under no circumstances be abandoned, welfare should never become a gold-plated ticket for an easy life. Governments should also peel back barriers to entry and overregulation so that the poor and unemployed can easily become self-employed without having to pass futile certifications, and pay thousands of dollars for licensing.

If we humans cannot avoid the excesses of prosperity, nature is a cruel mistress. What is the punishment for gluttonous obesity? It can become difficult or impossible to find a mate, thus making it difficult or impossible to pass our genes onto the next generation. The obese die younger, and thus turn back into dust sooner than their thinner counterparts.

And so too do societies enamoured with bread, circuses and free lunches. Rome was sacked, and its empire crumbled. Ming China collapsed under the weight of its traditionalism and technophobia. We here in the West — fed fat by the free lunch of petrodollar supremacy, the beauty of globalisation, the power and simplicity of a carbon-driven economy, and the largesse of the state — should heed those warnings. It is estimated that 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct

Krugman on Why the Eurozone is in Big Trouble

I’ve been quite explicit about my disagreement with Paul Krugman. His view is that the main problem in America’s economy is a lack of demand that could easily be reversed by a big enough fiscal stimulus. My view is that lowered demand merely reflects underlying structural problems, very often at a global or systemic level. Big stimuli would make the problems go away for a few months or years, only to re-emerge at a later date if the underlying causes aren’t addressed (as I discussed in more depth here).

But he’s definitely onto something (as opposed to on something) today. Here’s a Venn diagram of the road ahead for Europe:


The real question is whether or not Professor Krugman would include a fake alien invasion (to create spending and raise demand) in the “things that might actually work” category.

German Constitutional Court Approves Greek Bailouts

…or does it? From The Wall Street Journal:

KARLSRUHE, Germany (Dow Jones)–Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court Wednesday ruled that the euro-zone’s 2010 bailout for Greece and subsequent aid granted through the currency bloc’s rescue fund is legal, eliminating a major hurdle to the sovereign debt crisis response that’s been closely watched by financial markets.

The constitutional court in Karlsruhe also ruled that Germany’s Parliament should have more say in major future euro-zone bailouts, but these would only need approval from the parliament’s budget committee. This requirement is less strict than some proposals circulated by key government lawmakers that call for the plenary’s approval, a move that could stall the pace of future bailout efforts by giving more lawmakers influence to sway the decision process.

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Warren Buffett & CreditAnstalt

Is Warren Buffett shooting himself in the head? There’s one issue (okay — a couple of issues) I have been silent on in the past few weeks. But on Bank of America, it’s time to break the silence — because the issue of bank failures and bailouts can have huge, violent ramifications. So let’s look at Bank of America’s credit default swap spreads:


The red dot is where we leaped to just before Warren Buffett — the so-called Oracle of Omaha —  piled $5 billion into less than 24 hours after an Archimedean bathtub epiphany. I hope he did his due diligence:

“The Investor acknowledges that it has had an opportunity to conduct such review and analysis of the business, assets, condition, operations and prospects of the Company and its subsidiaries, including an opportunity to ask such questions of management (for which it has received such answers) and to review such information maintained by the Company, in each case as the Investor considers sufficient for the purpose of making the Purchase. The Investor further acknowledges that it has had such an opportunity to consult with its own counsel, financial and tax advisers and other professional advisers as it believes is sufficient for purposes of the Purchase. For purposes of this Agreement, the term “Transaction Documents” refers collectively to this Agreement, the Warrant and the Registration Rights Agreement, in each case, as amended, modified or supplemented from time to time in accordance with their respective terms.”

Of course, if Warren Buffet wants to throw billions of dollars at an institution which may or may not be sitting on a powder-keg of bad debt, then that is his prerogative. The problems begin when said Oracle’s new investments tank, are declared “too big to fail”, and are propped-up by the taxpayer. And it just so happens that there is an historical precedent for this. From Seeking Alpha:

As a former NLO dividend watchlist stock, Bank of America (BAC) has fallen on hard times that in many respects were predestined. In a posting titled Financial Panic Chronicles dated May 9, 2009, we pointed out the similarities of the October 1929 forced merger between Austria’s number-two bank BodenKreditAnstalt with number-one ranked CreditAnastalt, and the forced mergers between Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo/Wachovia, and J.P. Morgan/Bear Stearns in 2008.

Our point of making the comparison between distinctly different institutions in different eras was to show what the hazards might be when an ailing bank isn’t allowed to fail. It was only two years after the merger of BodenKreditAnstalt with CreditAnstalt that the remaining “super bank”, CreditAnstalt, collapsed which resulted in the worldwide banking crisis.

The failure of CreditAnstalt in 1931 did not arrive without a fight. F.M. Rothschild committed enormous amounts of money from 1930 to 1931 in an effort to use his name and financial largess to sway public opinion of the health of CreditAnstalt, not unlike Warren Buffett’s most recent investment in Bank of America. Buffett’s announcement that he’ll invest up to $5 billion may be a significant win for the Oracle of Omaha, and has temporarily boosted the share price of Bank of America by nearly 13%. However, even the biggest money interests cannot forestall the inevitable consequence of forced mergers if hobbled banking institutions.

The culmination for CreditAnstalt was nationalisation. Will it be the same for Bank of America?