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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Abenomics & Rooseveltian Resolve

The new Bank of Japan chief Haruhiko Kuroda today unveiled an aggressive new round of monetary easing, the latest step in the policy of recently-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As part of a promise to do “whatever it takes” to return Japan to growth, Kuroda promised a level of quantitative easing unseen before in Japan, intended to discourage saving and encourage spending. Kuroda promised to print 50 trillion yen ($520bn; £350bn) per year.That is the equivalent of almost 10% of Japan’s annual gross domestic product, and over double the level of what the Federal Reserve is currently experimenting with.

Many are hailing this as an attempt to put into practice the advice of Ben Bernanke to Japan in the 1990s — what Bernanke called “Rooseveltian resolve“. In fact, Ben Bernanke has provided a practical as well as a theoretical template through the unconventional policies adopted in the last five years by the Federal Reserve. Although some economic commentators believe that Shinzo Abe was more interested in reviving Japanese mercantilism and drive exports through a cheap currency, it is fairly clear that even if that is Abe’s ultimate intent, Abe is certainly harnessing Bernankean monetary policies (as well as Keynesian fiscal stimulus policies) in that pursuit.

So, will Abe’s policies return Japan to growth, as Bernanke might have intended?

Well, this diagnostic pathway sees deflation as the great central ill. The rising value of a currency acts as a disincentive to economic action and the encouragement of hoarding, because economic participants may tend to offset projects and purchases to get a greater bang for their buck. (This, of course, would be the great problem with Bitcoin becoming the sole currency as its inherent deflationary nature encourages inactivity and not activity, but that is a topic for another day). During deflation, delayed projects and subdued consumer spending are reflected in weak or nonexistent growth. More expected inflation encourages businesses and individuals to consume and start projects rather than save. At least, that’s the theory.

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. So in practice, what other effects are at play here?

First of all, the Japanese in general (or a substantial and influential proportion of them) seem to really dislike inflation. Why? Well, since the initial housing and stocks bubble burst in the 1990s, they have become a nation of capital accumulators with a low private debt level. This is at least partially a demographic phenomenon. Older people tend to have a much higher net worth than younger people who have had less time to amass capital, and they need places to park it — places like government and corporate debt. This has driven Japanese interest rates to the lowest in the world:

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The other side of the coin here is that this has made it very easy, almost inevitable, for the government to run massive budget deficits and run up huge levels of debt (which has to be rolled). Higher inflation would mean that those elderly creditors (who have up until now voted-in politicians who have kept the deflationary status quo) will very likely experience a negative real interest rate. Many may find this a painful experience, having grown used to deflation (which ensures a positive real interest rate even at a very low nominal interest rate, as has been the case in Japan since the 1990s):

JapanRealInterestRate

Every time Japan’s real interest rate has touched zero, it has shot back up. Japan has an aversion to negative real interest rates, it seems. And this is in stark contrast to countries like the UK and USA which have experienced much lower real interest rates since the 2008 crisis. A negative real interest rate in Japan would be a shock to the system, and a huge change for Japan’s capital-rich elderly who have happily ridden out the deflationary years in Japanese government bonds. (Of course, if reversing deflation revived real GDP growth then they would have more places to park their capital — like lending to or purchasing equity in growing business — but the question is whether or not the Japanese people at large have an appetite for such a shift).

Another challenge to growth is the existence of Japan’s zombie corporations and banks — inefficient, uncompetitive entities kept alive by government subsidies. Although some zombie banks left on life-support from the 1990s were terminated during the Koizumi years, it is fairly clear from total factor productivity figures of both Japanese manufacturing productivity and non-manufacturing productivity are still very uncompetitive. How can a burst of spending as a result of inflation turn that around? Without removing the subsidies — something that Abe, as a leader of the establishment Liberal Democratic Party, the party that has ruled Japan for the overwhelming majority of the postwar years, and is deeply interwoven with the crony industries is very unlikely to do — it may prove very difficult to return Japan to growth. And of course, these industries own the bulk of Japanese debt, so attempts to reduce the real interest rate is likely to prove deeply unpopular with them, too. (On the other hand, Japanese banks will profit from these open-market operations through flipping bonds at a profit, so the new policies may have their supporters as well as opposers among Japan’s zombie financiers).

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bank of Japan’s new programs are doomed to fail, or that they are likely to trigger severely adverse outcomes, but if serious attempts are not made to tackle the systemic challenges and entrenched interests, then it is hard to see how much can come out of this other than a transitory inflationary and devaluationary blip followed by a retreat to more of what Japan has become used to, and what much of Japanese society seems to like — low growth, a strong yen, and low inflation or deflation. And if Abe’s gameplan is really to grow by boosting the exports of the crony industries, then hope of desubsidisation of the crony industries seems almost entirely lost.

Certainly, more fiscal stimulus will eat up slack capital resources. And certainly, this is an interesting experiment on the fringes of Monetarism and monetary policy in general. If Japan goes through with this experiment, hits its inflation target and triggers sustained nominal GDP growth this will be a decent empirical test of whether or not such policies can lead to sustained real GDP growth. But there is no guarantee that Japan has the Rooseveltian resolve to follow through with these policies, and even if it does there is no guarantee that they will lead to a significantly higher trend in real GDP growth. The underlying system is deeply entrenched.

Of Krugman & Minsky

Paul Krugman just did something mind-bending.

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In a recent column, he cited Minsky ostensibly to defend Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policies:

Business Insider reports on a Bloomberg TV interview with hedge fund legend Stan Druckenmiller that helped crystallize in my mind what, exactly, I find so appalling about people who say that we must tighten monetary policy to avoid bubbles — even in the face of high unemployment and low inflation.

Druckenmiller blames Alan Greenspan’s loose-money policies for the whole disaster; that’s a highly dubious proposition, in fact rejected by all the serious studies I’ve seen. (Remember, the ECB was much less expansionary, but Europe had just as big a housing bubble; I vote for Minsky’s notion that financial systems run amok when people forget about risk, not because central bankers are a bit too liberal)

Krugman correctly identifies the mechanism here — prior to 2008, people forgot about risk. But why did people forget about risk, if not for the Greenspan put? Central bankers were perfectly happy to take credit for the prolonged growth and stability while the good times lasted.

Greenspan put the pedal to the metal each time the US hit a recession and flooded markets with liquidity. He was prepared to create bubbles to replace old bubbles, just as Krugman’s friend Paul McCulley once put it. Bernanke called it the Great Moderation; that through monetary policy, the Fed had effectively smoothed the business cycle to the extent that the old days of boom and bust were gone. It was boom and boom and boom.

So, people forgot about risk. Macroeconomic stability bred complacency. And the longer the perceived good times last, the more fragile the economy becomes, as more and more risky behaviour becomes the norm.

Stability is destabilising. The Great Moderation was intimately connected to markets becoming forgetful of risk. And bubbles formed. Not just housing, not just stocks. The truly unsustainable bubble underlying all the others was debt. This is the Federal Funds rate — rate cuts were Greenspan’s main tool — versus total debt as a percentage of GDP:

fredgraph (18)

More damningly, as Matthew C. Klein notes, the outgrowth in debt very clearly coincided with an outgrowth in risk taking:

To any competent central banker, it should have been obvious that the debt load was becoming unsustainable and that dropping interest rates while the debt load soared was irresponsible and dangerous. Unfortunately Greenspan didn’t see it. And now, we’re in the long, slow deleveraging part of the business cycle. We’re in a depression.

In endorsing Minsky’s view, Krugman is coming closer to the truth. But he is still one crucial step away. If stability is destabilising, we must embrace the business cycle. Smaller cyclical booms, and smaller cyclical busts. Not boom, boom, boom and then a grand mal seizure.

When Solar Becomes Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels

Solar power has been getting cheaper and cheaper:

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Current estimates suggest that solar might be as cheap as coal by the end of the decade, and half the cost of coal by the end of the next decade:

If the trend continues for another 8-10 years, which seems increasingly likely, solar will be as cheap as coal with the added benefit of zero carbon emissions. If the cost continues to fall over the next 20 years, solar costs will be half that of coal. These predictions may in fact be too conservative given that First Solar have reported internal production costs of 75 cents (46 pence) per watt with an expectation of 50 cents (31 pence) per watt by 2016.

When applied to electricity prices this predicts that solar generated electricity in the US will descend to a level of 12 cents (7 pence) per kilowatt hour by 2020, possibly even 2015 for the sunniest parts of America.

What does that mean? Cheap, decentralised, plentiful, sustainable energy production. This would be a massive relief to global markets that have been squeezed in recent years by the rising cost of oil extraction, which has been passed onto consumers. Falling energy prices — all else being equal — mean more disposable income to save and invest, or to spend.

Some will say that solar is inherently unviable due to the difficulty of storing energy. But huge advances have been made on that front in recent years, and improvements continue.

This — if it comes to pass — would be a basis for a period of strong growth. Independence from foreign oil. Independence from falling EROEI yields on conventional energy. A robust decentralised grid. A new sustainable energy supercycle — and new growth in other industries that benefit from falling energy costs. This has the potential to reverse so many of the negative trends we have seen emerge in recent years, and prove wrong the Malthusians who claim that humanity has over-extended itself and that the era of growth is over.

In the long term, this makes me pretty bullish. But unfortunately this is all still years away. Maybe five, maybe ten, maybe twenty years. We’re not out of the woods yet. Not for a long time.

Could America Get Sucked Into a China-Japan Conflict?

So China and Japan are both threatening conflict in their fairly brutal ongoing argument over a few tiny disputed islands (and their mineral rights):

Senkaku islands

With global growth slowing, both countries’ leaders might look to a war as a way to distract from economic woe. While a limited war between China and Japan over the islands — perhaps of the scale of the Falkland War between Britain and Argentina in the 1980s — would be unsettling for the global economy, the real question is whether or not such a conflict could spiral into something bigger. 

The first critical point to note is that both countries’ leadership are increasingly hawkish in tone and character. China is in many ways seeking to establish itself on the world stage as a global military and economic powerhouse. Countries seeking to establish themselves on the global stage have traditionally sought out conflict. Japan is an ideal candidate for Chinese hostility. There is a lot of resentment — Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria was brutal, and filled with war crimes (war crimes that the Japanese continue to deny). But more than that, Japan is an American protectorate, dotted with American bases, and subject to a mutual defence treaty. If China is to eclipse the United States as a global superpower, China must be able to show that she can impose her will on America.

And Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new Prime Minister has made it his life’s work to change Japan’s pacifistic constitution. Japan is faced with a twenty year economic depression, falling birthrates, a population of “herbivore” males with an aversion to sexuality. Abe may see hostility against China as a gateway to greater nationalism, and greater nationalistic fervour as a gateway to a national recovery.

First of all, it is critical to note that the United States is not legally obligated under its with Japan treaty to intercede on Japan’s behalf. The treaty states that the United States is required to report any such event to the UN Security Council, instead:

Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

Very simply, this means that China can attack Japan without fearing an inevitable American retaliation. That fact alone makes a small skirmish fairly likely.

So what if China successfully captured the islands — and perhaps even more Japanese territory — as we can perhaps assume given China’s overwhelming size and military-spending advantages? Well, the United States and presumably the international community other than China’s allies would seek to diplomatically pressure China to stand down and reach a peaceful arbitrated resolution via the UN.

If China refused to stand down and accept a diplomatic solution — that is, if China was absolutely set on staring down the United States — then the United States would be forced to choose between providing military support to Japan — and possibly ultimately escalating up to a global war between China and her allies and the United States and her allies — or facing a humiliating climbdown, and accepting both Chinese sovereignty over the islands, as well as any other Japanese territory that China might have captured, as well as face the possibility of further Chinese incursions and expansionism in the Pacific in the future.

Who will blink first is uncertain. Only the Chinese really know how strong they are, how far they are willing to push, and how much of their threats are a bluff.

On the other hand, as I wrote last year:

The relationship between China and the United States today is superficially similar to that between Great Britain and Germany in 1914. Germany and China — the rising industrial behemoths, fiercely nationalistic and determined to establish themselves and their currencies on the world stage. Great Britain and the United States  — the overstretched global superpowers intent on retaining their primacy and reserve currency status even in spite of huge and growing debt and military overstretch.

Mutually assured destruction can only act as a check on expansionism if it is credible. So far, no nation has really tested this credibility.

Nuclear-armed powers have already engaged in proxy wars, such as Vietnam. How far can the limits be pushed? Would the United States launch a first-strike on China if China were to invade and occupy Taiwan or Japan, for example? Would the United States try to launch a counter-invasion? Or would they back down? Launching a first-strike is highly unlikely in all cases — mutually assured destruction will remain an effective deterrent to nuclear war. But perhaps not to conventional war and territorial expansionism.

The chance of global war in the near-term remains very low. But so long as China and Japan continue their antagonism, the chance of global war in the long-term is rising.

Taleb on Overstabilisation

It’s nice to know that Taleb is preaching more or less the same gospel that I am.

Via the NYT:

Stabilization, of course, has long been the economic playbook of the United States government; it has kept interest rates low, shored up banks, purchased bad debts and printed money. But the effect is akin to treating metastatic cancer with painkillers. It has not only let deeper problems fester, but also aggravated inequality. Bankers have continued to get rich using taxpayer dollars as both fuel and backstop. And printing money tends to disproportionately benefit a certain class. The rise in asset prices made the superrich even richer, while the median family income has dropped.

Overstabilization also corrects problems that ought not to be corrected and renders the economy more fragile; and in a fragile economy, even small errors can lead to crises and plunge the entire system into chaos. That’s what happened in 2008. More than four years after that financial crisis began, nothing has been done to address its root causes.

Our goal instead should be an antifragile system — one in which mistakes don’t ricochet throughout the economy, but can instead be used to fuel growth. The key elements to such a system are decentralization of decision making and ensuring that all economic and political actors have some “skin in the game.”

Two of the biggest policy mistakes of the past decade resulted from centralized decision making. First, the Iraq war, in addition to its tragic outcomes, cost between 40 and 100 times the original estimates. The second was the 2008 crisis, which I believe resulted from an all-too-powerful Federal Reserve providing cheap money to stifle economic volatility; this, in turn, led to the accumulation of hidden risks in the economic system, which cascaded into a major blowup.

Just as we didn’t forecast these two mistakes and their impact, we’ll miss the next ones unless we confront our error-prone system. Fortunately, the solution can be bipartisan, pleasing both those who decry a large federal government and those who distrust the market.

First, in a decentralized system, errors are by nature smaller. Switzerland is one of the world’s wealthiest and most stable countries. It is also highly decentralized — with 26 cantons that are self-governing and make most of their own budgetary decisions. The absence of a central monopoly on taxation makes them compete for tax and bureaucratic efficiency. And if the Jura canton goes bankrupt, it will not destabilize the entire Swiss economy.

In decentralized systems, problems can be solved early and when they are small; stakeholders are also generally more willing to pay to solve local challenges (like fixing a bridge), which often affect them in a direct way. And when there are terrible failures in economic management — a bankrupt county, a state ill-prepared for its pension obligations — these do not necessarily bring the national economy to its knees. In fact, states and municipalities will learn from the mistakes of others, ultimately making the economy stronger.

It’s a myth that centralization and size bring “efficiency.” Centralized states are deficit-prone precisely because they tend to be gamed by lobbyists and large corporations, which increase their size in order to get the protection of bailouts. No large company should ever be bailed out; it creates a moral hazard.

Consider the difference between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who are taught to “fail early and often,” and large corporations that leech off governments and demand bailouts when they’re in trouble on the pretext that they are too big to fail. Entrepreneurs don’t ask for bailouts, and their failures do not destabilize the economy as a whole.

Second, there must be skin in the game across the board, so that nobody can inflict harm on others without first harming himself. Bankers got rich — and are still rich — from transferring risk to taxpayers (and we still haven’t seen clawbacks of executive pay at companies that were bailed out). Likewise, Washington bureaucrats haven’t been exposed to punishment for their errors, whereas officials at the municipal level often have to face the wrath of voters (and neighbors) who are affected by their mistakes.

If we want our economy not to be merely resilient, but to flourish, we must strive for antifragility. It is the difference between something that breaks severely after a policy error, and something that thrives from such mistakes. Since we cannot stop making mistakes and prediction errors, let us make sure their impact is limited and localized, and can in the long term help ensure our prosperity and growth.

Who Should Be Giving Thanks This Thanksgiving?

Not the wider public.

Our financial system is broken. Our political system is broken. Oligarchs and their cronies reap easy rewards — bailouts, crony capitalism, corporate handouts, liquidity injections, favourable “regulation” (that puts oligarchs’ competition out of a business) — while taxpayers pay the bill.

But no such thing lasts forever.

Thanksgiving is very much the day of the black swan. Nassim Taleb used the example of a turkey fattened up for Thanksgiving as an example of a black swan phenomenon. The turkey sees itself being fed every day by the turkey farmer and assumes based on past behaviour that this will continued indefinitely until the day comes when the farmer kills the turkey. Nothing in the turkey’s limited experiential dataset suggested such an event.

But Thanksgiving also commemorates the end of pre-Columbian America, a huge earth-shattering black swan for the people of the Americas. The day before the first European immigrants landed in North America, very little in the Native Americans’ dataset suggested what was to come.

In a globalised and hyper-connected world, drastic systemic change can occur faster than ever before.

All it takes is the first spark.