To build the Death Star, we’ll need this space elevator

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Last year, I wrote about why we should make massive-scale space projects like Star Wars’ Death Star a serious long-term goal for humanity. I wasn’t joking.

OK, I was kind of joking — I chose the Death Star as my example because it was the biggest and most absurd-sounding space technology project that I thought readers would generally be aware of. But I could just as easily have chosen a Dyson sphere, or a ringworld, or a topopolis, or a faster-than-light spacecraft. Whether the project resulted in an energy source in space or a planet-destroying battle station didn’t really matter for the purposes of my argument: The idea was that by reaching for the stars we could employ hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people during economic slumps and we’d accumulate a huge number of helpful technologies for use on Earth.

The good news is that we don’t have to wait for super laser or tractor beam technology before we begin work. The first steps should be comparatively small R&D projects, such as sending a manned mission to Mars or building a permanent base on the Moon, which are well within reach. Or, as a new report from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) shows, we could begin by building a space elevator.

Read More At TheWeek.com

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Why the post-antibiotic world is the real-life version of the zombie apocalypse


Right now, humanity is engaged in an epic battle against fast-adapting and merciless predators. No, zombies are not beating down doors to tear chunks of flesh out of the living. Rather, humanity is being hunted by deadly pathogenic bacteria that have gained resistance to antibiotics.

And thanks to the peculiar incentives that drive the pharmaceutical industry, it looks like the cavalry may be a long time in coming.

Read More At TheWeek.com

Why We Should Build The Death Star

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In January 2012, Zero Hedge made a sarcastic proposal to boost US GDP by $852 quadrillion — building the Death Star, a fictional moon-sized space station from the Star Wars film series:

Building a massive space weapon is all very well, but you have to find the materials to build it with. It’s easy to say that “sure, the Death Star would be expensive” but is there actually enough iron in the Earth to make the first Death Star? Centives decided to find out.

We began by loo king at how big the Death Star is. The first one is reported to be 140km in diameter and it sure looks like it’s made of steel. But how much steel? We decided to model the Death Star as having a similar density in steel as a modern warship. After all, they’re both essentially floating weapons platforms so that seems reasonable.

Scaling up to the Death Star, this is about 1.08×1015 tonnes of steel. 1 with fifteen zeros.

Which seems like a colossal mass but we’ve calculated that from the iron in the earth, you could make just over 2 billion Death Stars. You see the Earth’s crust may have a limited amount of iron, but the core is mostly our favourite metal and is both very big and very dense, and it’s from here that most of our death-star iron would come.

But, before you go off to start building your apocalyptic weapon, do bear in mind two things. Firstly, the two billion death stars is mostly from the Earth’s core which we would all really rather you didn’t remove. And secondly, at today’s rate of steel production (1.3 billion tonnes annually), it would take 833,315 years to produce enough steel to begin work. So once someone notices what you’re up to, you have to fend them off for 800 millennia before you have a chance to fight back. In context, it takes under an hour to get the steel for HMS Illustrious.

Oh, and the cost of the steel alone? At 2012 prices, about $852,000,000,000,000,000. Or roughly 13,000 times the world’s GDP.

The point was one against fiscal stimulus — while it may be possible to boost GDP by any amount through government spending, there is no guarantee whatever that that government spending will do anything productive. After all the toil and effort of building a Death Star what is an economy left with? On the surface of things, a giant metallic orb in space and very little else. In Misesian terms, this would be seen as a massive misallocation of capital, resources, labour and technology, building something that nobody in the market demanded and which could be ostensibly used to oppress people (“do what we say or we’ll fire our laser cannon at you!”).

Yet, I am going to try to defend it. I think that building the Death Star, or something similar is a very good idea and would have massive beneficial economic effects for employment, output, science, technology and so forth. And furthermore, I think it is possible in the very, very long run for a government to build the Death Star or something similar of a smaller scale without misallocating any capital, labour, technology or resources whatever.

First, I think that right now humanity is sitting in dangerous territory. There are over seven billion of us, yet we are all concentrated on one ecosystem — the Earth, with one tiny totally-dependent off-planet colony (the International Space Station) that houses less than ten people at a time. Simply, in our current predicament we are incredibly exposed. A single mass viral pandemic, asteroid strike or other cataclysm could completely wipe our species out. With humanity spread throughout the solar system (and preferably, the galaxy and the universe) our species is far less fragile to random extinction events. The Death Star itself — a giant space weapon — would be a safeguard against a particular kind of cataclysmic risk, that of hostile alien attack. If there are other advanced lifeforms populating our universe, they may see life on Earth and especially humans as an existential threat. Having a large, powerful weapon like a Death Star could be a strong safeguard against our own destruction by other species.

Zero Hedge’s mock proposal is actually quite thin, only taking into account the resource cost of the steel, and not the cost of getting the steel into space, building a moon-sized steel satellite in space, presumably including the development of laser cannon technology, some kind of propulsion system, the feeding and housing of a large permanent crew including oxygen and water recycling facilities, hydroponics and artificial food technologies, a transport system to get people and things between the Earth and the Death Star, etc. Nor does it take into account the cost of the labour in employing scientists and technologists to develop and prototype the technologies, employing engineers to deploy the technology, and employing labourers or automated robots to produce components and parts and to assemble the finished article. Simply, the cost would far exceed even what Zero Hedge projects, possibly by many times over.

So why the hell would I think that committing to spend vastly more than global GDP on a single project that nobody in the market is demanding is a good idea? Have I completely lost my mind, and any concept of sound economics that I once had? Well, on a potentially infinite timeline, such a huge figure (let’s say the necessary figure is ten times what Zero Hedge estimated, which could still be rather low in my honest opinion) pales into insignificance as we go further along the timeline. Building the Death Star is not currently a short term project that could be done to boost GDP in a single year to make up an output gap, deploy idle capital or reduce unemployment. In fact even if we committed to building the Death Star today, it is highly unlikely that we would actually even begin work on it in the next 100 or even 200 years. There would be vast technological, social and organisational challenges ahead before we could even begin to think seriously about commencing production. What we would begin work on are challenges far more modest and far closer to our present capabilities — sending a human to Mars, setting up a permanent base on the moon, setting up a permanent base on Mars, and developing technologies for those purposes — specifically multi-use lifters, a space elevator, improved solar energy collection and storage, improved nuclear batteries, improved 3-D printing technologies, higher energy particle accelerators, space mining technologies, robots, machine learning, computing, life support systems and things as mundane as increased science and science education spending.

Those kinds of tasks are much, much, much lower cost than actually committing to building the Death Star in one go, and can relatively easily be funded from presently idle resources (thus not misallocating any resources) as measured by the output gap which currently sits at around $856 billion (5.8% of potential GDP). The United States (alongside like-minded countries with similarly large output gaps) could fund a manned mission to Mars ($6 billion), build a new high energy particle accelerator ($12 billion), give ten-thousand million-dollar basic research grants ($10 billion), build a base on the Moon ($35 billion) and invest $20 billion more in science education for less than 10% of the current output gap. Better still, NASA and space-related spending historically has a relatively high multiplier of at least $2 (and possibly as much as $14 for certain projects, as well as a multiplier of 2.8 jobs for every job directly created) of extra economic activity generated per dollar spent. Given that space-spending yields new technologies like global positioning systems, satellite broadcasting, 3-D printers and memory foam that lead to new products, this is unsurprising. It also means that such spending is likely to get the economy back to full employment more quickly. Once this round of projects is completed, we will have a better idea of where we need to go technologically to be able to build a Death Star. The next time the economy has a negative output gap and unemployment, a new series of large-scale projects can commence. Eventually, with the growth of technology, automation and knowledge, a project on the scale of the Death Star may become not only economically viable but a valuable contribution to human capacity.

Many free market purists will wonder what the point of all of this is. Didn’t the Soviet economy collapse under the weight of huge misallocation of capital to large-scale grandiose projects that nobody wanted? What about all the projects that could have been undertaken by the free market in the absence of such a grandiose project?  My answer to this is twofold — first of all, I am only proposing deploying idle resources that the market has chosen to allow to sit idle and unproductive for a long time. Second, there are some projects that are actually important but which are not currently viable in the market. Space technology is probably the most obvious example. While I greatly admire the new generation of space entrepreneurs, and while I concede that long-term space colonisation will be undertaken be private individuals and groups (in the manner of the Pilgrim Fathers who colonised America — people seeking the ability to live by their own rules, instead of those of established Earth-based jurisdictions) the private space industry is still a long way behind where states were forty or fifty years ago. The Apollo program that put human beings on the Moon has still not been matched by private enterprise.

Ultimately, the Death Star itself is far beyond current human capacities, and far beyond the capacity of the idle capital, labour and resources that we have the option of using up through public initiatives. This I must concede. But, as a super-long-term goal, the capacity to build such things is what our civilisation ought to aspire to. And getting to such super-long-term objectives requires investment and investigation today.

Will Gold Be a Medium of Exchange Again?

While gold is widely held as a store of purchasing power, and while it is possible to use gold as a unit of account (by converting its floating value to denominate anything in gold terms), gold is no longer widely used as a medium of exchange.

Noah Smith says that gold will never be a widespread medium of exchange again:

In the days when people carried around gold doubloons and whatnot as money, you had a global political system characterized by pockets of stability (the Spanish Empire, or the Chinese Empire, or whatever) scattered among large areas of anarchy. Those stable centers minted and gave out the gold coins. But in the event of a massive modern global catastrophe that brought widespread anarchy, the gold bars buried in your backyard would not be swappable for eggs or butter at the corner store. You’d need some big organization to turn the gold bars into coins of standard weights and purity. And that big organization is not going to do that for you as a free service. More likely, that big organization will simply kill you and take your gold bars, Dungeons and Dragons style.

In other words, I think gold is never coming back as a medium of exchange, under any circumstances. It is no more likely than a return of the Holy Roman Empire. Say goodbye forever to gold money.

Well, forever is a very long time. Human history stretches back just six million years. Recorded history suggests that gold has only been used as a medium of exchange for five or six thousand years. But for that tiny sliver of human history, gold became for many cultures entirely synonymous with money, and largely synonymous with wealth. So I think Noah is over egging his case by using the word forever. Societies have drastically changed in the last six thousand years, let alone the last one hundred. We don’t know how human culture and technology and societies will progress in the future. As humans colonise space, we may see a great deal of cultural and social fragmentation; deeper into the future, believers in gold as money may set up their own planetary colonies or space stations.

But what about the near future? Well, central banks are still using gold as a reserve. In the medium term, it is a hedge against the counter-party risks of a global fiat reserve system in flux. But central banks buying and acquiring gold is not the same thing as gold being used as a medium of exchange. Gold as a reserve never went away, and even in the most Keynesian of futures may not fully die for a long time yet.

And what about this great hypothetical scenario that many are obsessed with where the fragile interconnective structure of modern society — including electronics — briefly or not-so-briefly collapses? Such an event could result from a natural disaster like a megatsunami, or extreme climate change, or a solar flare, or from a global war. Well, again, we can’t really say what will or won’t be useful as a medium of exchange under such circumstances. My intuition is that we would experience massive decentralisation, and trade would be conducted predominantly either in terms of barter and theft. If you have gold coins or bars, and want to engage in trade using them — and have a means to protect yourself from theft, like guns and ammunition — then it is foreseeable that these could be bartered. But so too could whiskey, cigarettes, beer, canned food, fuel, water, IOUs and indeed state fiat currencies. If any dominant media of exchange emerges, it is likely to be localised and ad hoc. In the longer run, if modern civilisation does not return swiftly but instead has to be rebuilt from the ground up over generations then it is foreseeable that physical gold (and other precious metals, including silver) could emerge as the de facto medium of exchange, simply because such things are nonperishable, fungible, and relatively difficult to fake. On the other hand, if modern civilisation is swiftly rebuilt, then it is much more foreseeable that precious metal-based media of exchange will not have the time to get off the ground on anything more than the most localised and ad hoc of bases.

Noah concludes:

So when does gold actually pay off? Well, remember that stories do not have to be true for people to believe them. Lots and lots of people believe that gold or gold-backed money in the event of a global social disruption. And so when this story becomes more popular (possibly with the launching of websites like Zero Hedge?), or when large-scale social disruption seems more likely while holding the popularity of the story constant, gold pays off. Gold is like a credit default swap backed by an insolvent counterparty – it has no hope of actually being redeemed, but you can keep it around forever, and it goes up in price whenever people get scared.

In other words, gold pays off when there is an outbreak of goldbug-ism. Gold is a bet that there will be more goldbugs in the future than there are now. And since the “gold will be money again” story is very deep and powerful, based as it is on thousands of years of (no longer applicable) historical experience, it is highly likely that goldbug-ism will break out again someday. So if you’re the gambling type, or if you plan to start the next Zero Hedge, or if your income for some reason goes down when goldbug-ism breaks out, well, go ahead and place a one-way bet on gold.

Noah, of course, is right that gold is valuable when other people are willing to pay for it. The reason why gold became money in the first place was because people chose to use it as a medium of exchange. They liked it, and they used it, and that created demand for it. If that happens again, then gold will be an in-demand medium of exchange again. But for many reasons — including that governments want monetary flexibility — most of the world today has rejected gold as a medium of exchange.

But there is another pathway for gold to pay off. Noah is overlooking the small possibility that gold may at some point become more than a speculative investment based on the future possibility that gold may at some point return as a monetary media. In 2010, scientists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, using their Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) collided some gold nuclei, traveling at 99.999% of the speed of light. The plasma that resulted was so energetic that a tiny cube of it with sides measuring about a quarter of the width of a human hair would contain enough energy to power the entire United States for a year. So there exists a possibility that gold could be used at some date in the future as an energy source — completely obliterating any possibility of gold becoming a medium of exchange again. Of course, capturing and storing that energy is another matter entirely, and may prove impossible. In that case — if gold does not become a valuable energy source — it is almost inevitable that some society somewhere at some stage will experiment again with gold as a medium of exchange.

On My Enthusiasm For Solar Energy

I am a solar energy enthusiast. The energetic parts of the universe are clustered around stars. We sit here on this dusty ball of rock and water, heated continually by the Sun. The difference between when we face toward our local star and when we face away from it is — in the most literal sense — day and night. Our lives on Earth are already solar-powered; the plants (and plant-eating animals) we eat get their energy from photosynthesis. The trees and other biomass we have used for energy for much of our history, as well as the fossil fuel reserves we use today are forms of stored solar energy from earlier organisms that died and were trapped under the Earth. Wind energy and tidal energy are perturbations of dynamical systems heated by solar energy. Even the nuclear energy we use extracted from fissionable uranium and plutonium is stored from supernovae in early stars that exploded and pushed the complex elements — including the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in our bodies — out across the universe.

It is not so much a question of whether we use solar energy, but whether we use direct solar energy, or some derivative form. As our civilisation has advanced and grown, we have had to tap into larger sources to meet the demand for cheap and easily-accessible energy. Our technological sophistication and understanding of basic physics and chemistry has had to grow with our energy hunger to take advantage of different forms of energy; windmills, steam engines, oil refineries, cold water reactors and photovoltaic panels, and so on. In the long run, it is a mathematical certainty that to sustain our civilisation at present levels, or to grow and increase energy consumption we must transition to renewable energy both because quantities of fossil fuels and star fuels like uranium and plutonium on Earth are finite.

The availability of direct solar energy on Earth dwarfs other energy sources, including renewable energy:

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All that is necessary in the long run for renewable energy sustainability is that the level of output exceeds the level of input enough to provide a reliable energy source. Even at current solar efficiencies — and thus assuming that the technology won’t improve — photovoltaic solar generates seven times more energy than it takes to generate:

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While this is not currently as good as oil or natural gas or coal, it already beats shale oil and biofuels. The beautiful thing about solar energy is that there is so much of it that the technology does not have to be greatly efficient. And prices are falling and efficiencies are improving. While some renewables like wind and hydroelectric are more efficient, they are not abundant enough to even cover the bulk of our energy needs today. In the short run, combined with hydroelectric and wind and nuclear there is a real basis for long-term renewable energy sustainability. To smooth the transition, renewable technology needs investment and development.

In the long run, while obviously renewables still cost a lot more than non-renewables in the marketplace, but we have already established that that cannot last forever. Even the supply of uranium is limited. While we may discover superior technologies like cold fusion, we should be completely prepared for the eventuality that we don’t discover a better technology. While photovoltaic solar remains the largest and most long-term source of available energy — and thus the best hope for the continuation and expansion of sustainable human civilisation — it should receive a bulk of funding and development, and we should assume that in the very long run it should meet the bulk of our energy needs. There are still challenges like solar energy storage, but these challenges are being surmounted with improved battery technologies, and improved distribution technologies such as microgrids. 

Of course, if the photovoltaic solar price trend known as the Swanson Effect that has seen solar fall over 99% in cost since the 1970s continues, then solar will reach and exceed parity with other energy sources and be crowned the winner by the market based simply on  low cost. After all, solar energy is superabundant compared to the alternatives, so it would not be at all surprising for it to become the cheapest. But even if the Swanson Effect does not play out and solar does not become super-cheap, direct photovoltaic solar is extremely likely to play a major role in continued human civilisation on this planet and elsewhere.

Ben Bernanke Is Right About Interconnective Innovation

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I’d just like to double down on Ben Bernanke’s comments on why he is optimistic about the future of human economic progress in the long run:

Pessimists may be paying too little attention to the strength of the underlying economic and social forces that generate innovation in the modern world. Invention was once the province of the isolated scientist or tinkerer. The transmission of new ideas and the adaptation of the best new insights to commercial uses were slow and erratic. But all of that is changing radically. We live on a planet that is becoming richer and more populous, and in which not only the most advanced economies but also large emerging market nations like China and India increasingly see their economic futures as tied to technological innovation. In that context, the number of trained scientists and engineers is increasing rapidly, as are the resources for research being provided by universities, governments, and the private sector. Moreover, because of the Internet and other advances in communications, collaboration and the exchange of ideas take place at high speed and with little regard for geographic distance. For example, research papers are now disseminated and critiqued almost instantaneously rather than after publication in a journal several years after they are written. And, importantly, as trade and globalization increase the size of the potential market for new products, the possible economic rewards for being first with an innovative product or process are growing rapidly. In short, both humanity’s capacity to innovate and the incentives to innovate are greater today than at any other time in history.

My reasons for optimism for the long run are predominantly technological rather than social. I tend to see the potential for a huge organic growth in the long run resulting from falling energy and manufacturing costs from superabundant alternative energy sources like solar, synthetic petroleum, wind, and nuclear, as well as decentralised manufacturing through 3-D printing and ultimately molecular manufacturing.

But Bernanke’s reasons are pretty good too. I see it every day. Using Twitter, the blogosphere and various other online interfaces, I discuss and refine my views in the company a huge selection of people of various backgrounds. And we all have access to masses of data to backup or challenge our ideas. Intellectual discussions and disputes that might have taken years now take days or weeks — look at the collapse of Reinhart & Rogoff. Ideas, hypotheses, inventions and concepts can spread freely. One innovation shared can feed into ten or twenty new innovations. The internet has built a decentralised open-source platform for collaborative innovation and intellectual development like nothing the world has ever seen.

Of course, as the 2008 financial collapse as well as the more general Too Big To Fail problem shows greater interconnectivity isn’t always good news. Sometimes, greater interconnectivity allows for the transmission of the negative as well as the positive; in the case of 2008 the interconnective global financial system transmitted illiquidity in a default cascade.

But in this case, sharing ideas and information seems entirely beneficial both to the systemic state of human knowledge and innovation, and to individuals like myself who wish to hook into the human network.

So this is another great reason to be optimistic about the long run.

Is China a Currency Manipulator?

Mitt Romney thinks so:

China has an interest in trade. China wants to, as they have 20 million people coming out of the farms and coming into the cities every year, they want to be able to put them to work. They want to have access to global markets. And so we have right now something they need very badly, which is access to our market and our friends around the world, have that same– power over China. To make sure that we let them understand that in order for them to continue to have free and open access to the thing they want so badly, our markets, they have to play by the rules.

They’re a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we go before the W.T.O. and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. And that allows us to apply tariffs where we believe they are stealing our intellectual property, hacking into our computers, or artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs. We can’t just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, “Well, you’ll start a trade war.” There’s one going on right now, folks. They’re stealing our jobs. And we’re gonna stand up to China.

The theory goes that by buying U.S. currency (so far they have accumulated around $3 trillion) and treasuries (around $1 trillion) on the open market, China keeps demand for the US dollar high.  They can afford to buy and hold so much US currency due to their huge trade surplus with America, and they buy US currency roughly equal to this surplus.  To keep this pile of dollars from increasing the Chinese money supply, China sterilises the dollar purchases by selling a proportionate amount of bonds to Chinese investors.  Supposedly by boosting the dollar, yuan-denominated Chinese goods look cheap to the American (and global) consumer.

First, I don’t really think we can conclusively say that the yuan is necessarily undervalued. That is like assuming that there is some natural rate of exchange beyond prices in the real world. For every dollar that China takes out of the open market, America could print one more — something which, lest we forget — Bernanke has been very busily doing; the American monetary base has tripled since 2008. Actions have consequences; if China’s currency peg was so unsustainable, the status quo would have collapsed long ago. Until it does, we cannot conclusively say to what extent the yuan is undervalued.

What Romney is forgetting is that every nation with a fiat currency is to some degree or other a currency manipulator. That’s what fiat is all about: the ability of the state to manipulate markets through monetary policy. When Ben Bernanke engages in quantitative easing, or twisting, or any kind of monetary policy or open market operation, the Federal Reserve is engaging in currency manipulation. Every new dollar that is printed devalues every dollar out in the wild, and just as importantly all dollar-denominated debt. So just as Romney can look China in the face and accuse them of being a currency manipulator for trying to peg the yuan to the dollar, China can look at past U.S. administrations and level exactly the same claim — currency manipulation in the national interest.

While China’s currency policy in the past 40 years has been to attract manufacturing, technology, resources and investment into China (and build up a manufacturing base to provide employment to its low-skilled population) by keeping its produce cheap, America’s currency policy has sought to enjoy a free lunch made up of everyone else’s labour and resources. This has been allowed to develop because of America’s reserve currency status — everyone has needed dollars to access global markets, and so America has rested on her laurels and allowed her productive industries to decline. Why manufacture the bulk of your consumption when China can do it cheaper, and Wal Mart has no problem with slave labour? Why manufacture your military hardware when China can do it cheaper? Why produce your own energy when you can instead consume Arab and Latin American oil?

Former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman raised this issue in an article from China Business News in a cable that was eventually leaked via Wikileaks:

The U.S. has almost used all deterring means, besides military means, against China.  China must be clear on discovering what the U.S. goals are behind its tough stances against China. In fact, a fierce competition between the currencies of big countries has just started.  A crucial move for the U.S. is to shift its crisis to other countries – by coercing China to buy U.S. treasury bonds with foreign exchange reserves and doing everything possible to prevent China’s foreign reserve from buying gold.

If we use all of our foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, then when someday the U.S. Federal Reserve suddenly announces that the original ten old U.S. dollars are now worth only one new U.S. dollar, and the new U.S. dollar is pegged to the gold – we will be dumbfounded.

Today when the United States is determined to beggar thy neighbor, shifting its crisis to China, the Chinese must be very clear what the key to victory is.  It is by no means to use new foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds.  The issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, trade and so on are all false tricks, while forcing China to buy U.S. bonds is the U.S.’s real intention.”

Romney and others of his ilk might brush this off, believing that China’s $3 trillion dollar reserve hoard was gained through unfair means — slave labour, cutting corners in quality, the aforementioned “currency manipulation”, etc, and that that somehow gives America the right to inflate away its debts and screw its creditors. To some degree, they have a point. If China had a problem with America inflating away its debts, it should never have put itself so deep into dollar-denominated paper. If China recognised that America’s debt position was unsustainable, it should never have put so much into something so unsustainable, irrespective of supposed American pressure.

In the short term, though, I think escalating the trade war through the imposition of tariffs is a very bad idea. America is a consumption-led economy, and with middle class incomes already squeezed, a constriction of the supply of cheap and readily available goods is likely to put a lot of downward pressure on consumption. And it’s not just consumption — in today’s hyper-globalised world, a huge proportion of manufacturing — including military hardware — at some stage flows through China.

As Vincent Fernando noted:

Most of America’s key military technologies require rare earth elements, whose production China holds a near-monopoly over.

It’s thus perhaps no surprise that China has made the threat of rare earth export restrictions a new political bargaining chip.

American corporations could gradually pull out of China and shift to manufacturing and extracting resources elsewhere including America (which has large rare earth deposits), but it would be a challenging process. Rebuilding an industrial base is hard: skilled and experienced labour takes time to develop (American labour is rusty and increasingly unemployed and disabled), and supply chains and webs have all agglomerated in China. Building up domestic supply chains takes time, expertise and entrepreneurial zeal. And any destabilisation could spook global markets.

So let’s make no mistake: in the short term America needs China far, far, far more than China needs America. The notion that China needs America as a consumer is totally false; anyone can consume given the dollars or gold, and China holds $3 trillion, and continues to increase its imports of gold.

Peter Schiff summarises:

The big problem for countries like China and India is that they still subsidize the U.S. They buy our Treasury bonds and lend us all this money so we can keep consuming. That’s a big subsidy and a heavy burden.

They can use their money to develop their own economy, produce better and more abundant products for their own citizens. It’s a farce to think that the only thing China can do with its output and savings is lend it to the U.S. government, especially when we can’t pay it back.

Mitt Romney seems intent on destabilising this fragile relationship. American policy that incentivised globalisation and the service economy has very foolishly drawn America into this fragile position where its economy is increasingly fuelled not only by energy coming out of the politically and economically unstable middle east, but also by goods coming from a hostile and increasingly politically and economically unstable power.

And make no mistake — although China has done well to successfully transform itself into the world’s pre-eminent industrial base and biggest creditor, it has a lot of bubbles waiting to burst (particularly housing), stemming from the misallocation of resources under its semi-planned regime. Which makes this entire scenario doubly dangerous. Any shock in China would surely be transmitted to America, simply because it is becoming increasingly pointless for China to continue subsidising American consumption (through buying treasuries) when they could instead spend the money raising the Chinese standard of living. That could mean a painful rate-spike.

The real problem is that Romney is trying to address a problem that is very much in the past. If Romney was elected as President on this platform in 2000, things might be different. But China got what it wanted: by keeping its currency cheap and its labour force impoverished it became the world’s pre-eminent industrial base, the spider at the heart of the web of global trade, and a monopoly on important industrial components and resources. China used American demand, technology and investment during the 00s to develop. Now the imperative is not to grab a bigger share of global manufacturing, or a bigger hoard of dollarsit’s to leverage that position toward the ultimate aim of returning China to its multi-millennial superpower status. The promise of Chinese primacy is quite simply the strongest tool for the CPC to retain its (increasingly shaky) grip on China.

However we should not discount the possibility that bursting economic bubbles may stoke up some kind of popular rebellion against the Communist authorities in some kind of Chinese Spring. A new more pro-Western regime is surely America’s best hope of containing China, while gradually manoeuvring itself out of dependency on Arab oil and Chinese goods. But that may just be wishful thinking; it is possible that a new Chinese regime may be vehemently anti-Western; the Opium War and China’s 20th century humiliation still ring deeply in the Chinese psyche.

So it is unclear what is next for China, and the relationship between China and America. But having the world’s biggest manufacturing base and a monopoly over rare earths is a strong position to be in if your ultimate aim is to manufacture huge quantities of armaments in the pursuit of an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy…

Mining the Skies

In August last year I wrote:

Concerned about resource scarcity? There’s plenty more up there. Last year, scientists confirmed that there was water on the moon. And there are metals and hydrocarbons abundant in asteroids. Metallic asteroids  possess copper, silver, gold, and all other such elements as well, though not in abundances anywhere near as large as those of their primary constituents.

It’s an age old trope, going back to John S. Lewis’ book on the subject, and one of my greater interests.

I know that Earth is finite. I know that in some limited sense Malthus — my great intellectual nemesis, albeit one who has been proven wrong and wrong again and again — could be proven right. Earth’s resources are limited simply by the fact that Earth is a limited space. If we don’t leave Earth behind, and we continue to expand we will hit Earth’s limits, if not by the end of the century (unlikely, in my view) then by the end of the millennium.

But my key message on this subject is this: Malthus will only ever be proven right if we screw up. It’s a big expansive universe, and we are smart, flexible, ingenious creatures. We don’t know how big, but the amount of resources out there seem far, far beyond the scope of the human imagination. Malthus will always be there with us, a shackle around our necks, forewarning us not to be too gluttonous, or to expand too far too fast, and to maintain an awareness of our access to resources, particularly water and sustenance. Forewarning us, I might add, of the dangers of our own arrogance. But resource pressures are something we can always conquer without resorting to any kind of nasty authoritarianism.

For just as I expected — and not a moment too soon — a cohort of the wealthy are putting their economic weight behind the idea of going out and getting more resources.

From the Telegraph:

Power players including Eric Schmidt, the Google chairman, and James Cameron, the film director, are planning to mine the final frontier: space.

They are among the backers of a new venture that will reach for the riches lying elsewhere in the solar system. Planetary Resources will be a “space exploration company to expand Earth’s resource base” according to scant information released ahead of the start-up’s launch in Seattle on Tuesday.

“The company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP,” was the bold claim. “This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.”

Mr Schmidt and the internet giant’s co-founder Larry Page are listed alongside Mr Cameron, the director of Titanic and Avatar, among the venture’s investors and advisers.

The company was founded by Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis. “Since my childhood I’ve wanted to do one thing, be an asteroid miner,” Mr Diamandis told Forbes earlier this year. “So stay tuned on that one.”

While the costs of space travel are high, the hope is that riches contained in asteroids would make the sums worthwhile. Studies suggest that gold and other metals in the earth’s crust originated from asteroids that collided with the planet during its early life.

This is not the end of the road, but the start.

In any new industry there will be failures, some dramatic. Solar energy is a wonderful principle, but Solyndra was a terrible company.

But it is a pleasing start. Human civilisation just took a step in the right direction. And the ghost of Malthus just took another crashing blow.

Identifying a Treasury Crash

Readers have asked my opinion on whether or not China and Russia’s recent treasury offloading spree amounts to the first phase of a potential Great Treasury Crash.

Here’s a reminder:

There are two very strong pieces of evidence here for dollar and treasury weakness and instability: firstly, the very real phenomenon of negative real interest rates (i.e. interest rates minus inflation) making treasury bonds a losing investment in terms of purchasing power, and secondly the fact that China (the largest real holder of Treasuries) is committed to dumping them and acquiring harder assets (and bailing out their real estate bubble). So the question is when these perceptions will be shattered.

A large sovereign treasury dumper like China with its $1+ trillion of treasury holdings throwing a significant portion of these onto the open market would very quickly outpace the institutional buyers, and force a small spike in rates (i.e. a drop in price). The small recent spike corresponds to this kind of activity. The difference between a small spike in yields and one large enough to make the market panic enough to cause a treasury crash is the pace and scope of liquidation.

Now, no sovereign seller in their right mind would fail to pace their liquidation just slowly enough to keep the market warm. After all, they want to get the most for their assets as they can, and panicking the market would mean a lower price.

But there are two (or three) foreseeable scenarios that would raise the pace to a level sufficient to panic the markets:

  1. China desperately needs to raise dollars to bail out its real estate market and paper over the cracks of its credit bubbles, and so goes into full-on liquidation mode.
  2. China retaliates to an increasingly-hostile American trade policy and — alongside other hostile foreign creditors (Russia in particular) — organise a mass bond liquidation to “teach America a lesson”.
  3. Both of the above.

Now the pace and scope of any coming treasury liquidation is still uncertain and I expect it to very much be dictated by how the Chinese real estate picture plays out — the worse the real estate crash, the more likely Chinese central-planners are to panic and liquidate faster.

So here’s the relevant data:


Clearly, what we would expect to see in the nascent phases of a crash is that blue line to spike while the other lines all decline significantly.

Does this look like that to you? Well, frankly, no. China’s holdings have merely declined to 2010 levels — hardly a nosedive, but certainly signifying China’s lukewarmness toward the Obama-Bernanke administrations. Right now they are just testing the water.

Significantly, rates have risen in the past few days, signalling that even in spite of all the QE and Twisting, Bernanke’s task remains volatile.

So — while it is all very easy and attention-grabbing to spew fear-mongering projections of an imminent crash — I have to be realistic. 2013 or 2014 or even later seems a much likelier timeframe for this momentous and historic eventuality. And of course, black swans can derail any projection. Humans will always be fallible, no matter how much processing power we put behind our prognostications.

So there is really no timeframe to my prediction. Certainly, Bernanke has proven himself to be a proficient can-kicker. Too many economists have scuppered their reputations by making timed predictions which fail to play out.

And my prediction is not an economic prediction, so much as a geopolitical one, and political science is an oxymoron; politics (like any other market — yes, it’s a market to be bought and sold) can swerve and tilt in any direction in the time-being, even while its broader historical trends are clear and evident. (In this case, the rise of China, the end of American primacy, and the death of the dollar as a reserve currency).

Obama Fires Trade War Salvo

From Bloomberg:

Should the rise of China have us nervous about a neodymium gap?

It’s a question President Barack Obama is taking seriously, as he showed Tuesday in asking the World Trade Organization to look into China’s manipulation of the global market in so-called rare-earth elements. We wish the U.S. Defense Department would show an equal amount of concern.

Neodymium is one of 17 rare-earth metals that have become vital to industrial production and national security in our high-tech age.

One thing neodymium isn’t is rare — it is as commonplace in the earth’s crust as prosaic metals like copper, and scattered around the globe. Much the same can be said of praseodymium (used in Hollywood’s arc lights), samarium (guided missiles) and lanthanum (night-vision goggles). Yet, despite this abundance, China produces more than 90 percent of the global supply of rare earths.

The trigger points for wars often seem silly and inconsequential; and readers only need to refer to yesterday’s post to consider just how consequential the outcome of this nascent trade war might be. And the reality here is that America has ample supplies of rare earths:


That’s right: the United States was once Earth’s greatest producer of rare earth metals. But China managed to do it more cheaply, and so American interests decided they would go with the cheaper option. And so America’s national security interest was compromised as China can now set whatever quotas and prices they want. America’s huge rare earth resources remain undeveloped.

From New Scientist:

The US has 13 million tonnes of rare earth elements but it would take years to extract them, suggests the first detailed report on the country’s supply.

“Rare earth” is an alternative name for the lanthanides – elements 57 to 71 – plus yttrium and scandium. The elements are integral to modern life, and are used in everything from disc drives, hybrid cars and sunglasses to lasers and aircraft used by the military.

China controls 97 per cent of the world’s supply and has been tightening its export quotas, sparking concerns that the rare earths could live up to their name.

What the big media commentators are missing is that this problem is a microcosm of a much, much bigger problem for America down the road. Namely, that this is far from the only industry — from resources, to components, to finished goods — where China produces, and America consumes, and China can cut America off any time she likes.

Oh, but they’ll never cut us off!” cries the deluded American wishful-thinker. “They need us to consume their produce!”

Sadly, China has 1300 million people in its own population who would be quite willing to do a little consumption to keep the Chinese economy ticking over. Consumption is easy — anyone can consume — especially an economy with a very high savings rate and a huge hoard of $ and €, like China.

This strain of American thought reminds me very much of the pre-sacking Roman elites who foolishly clung to the belief that the barbarians could never sack Rome, because Rome was Rome, and the barbarians were snivelling Dionysians lacking in culture and sensibility.

No, the barbarians can sack Rome. And they will, so long as America keeps trying so damn hard to stay resource- and energy-dependent, and to continue to accrue debt to foot the bill for her role as global policeman.