The Long Run


Niall Ferguson’s misunderstanding of Keynes led me to the question of how humans should balance the present against the long run?

It’s hard for us primates to have a real clue about the long run — the chain of events that may occur, the kind of world that will form. In the long run — the billions of years for which Earth has existed — modern human civilisation is a flash, a momentary pulsation of order imposed by primates on the face of the Earth — modern cities, roads, ports, oil wells, telecommunications and so forth built up over a little more than a century, a little more than two or three frail human lifespans.

Human projections of the direction of the future are notoriously unreliable. Professional futurists who devote careers to mapping the trajectory of human and earthly progress are often far wide of the mark. And in the realm of markets and economics, human projectional abilities are notoriously awful — only 0.4% of money managers beat the market over ten years.

As humans, our only window to the future is our imaginations. We cannot know the future, but we can imagine it as Ludwig Lachmann once noted. And in a world where everyone is working from unique internal models and expectations — for a very general example, Keynesians expecting zero rates and deflation, Austrians expecting rising rates and inflation — divergent human imaginations and expectations is an ingredient for chaos that renders assumptions of equilibrium hopelessly idealistic.

A tiny minority of fundamental investors can beat the market — Keynes himself trounced the market between 1926 and 1946, for example by following principles of value investing (like Benjamin Graham later advocated). But like in poker, while virtually everyone at the table believes they can beat the game in the long run — through, perhaps, virtues of good judgement, or good luck, or some combination of the two — the historical record shows that the vast majority of predictors are chumps. And for what it’s worth, markets are a harder game to win than games like poker. In poker, precise probabilities can be assigned to outcomes — there are no unknown unknowns in a deck of playing cards. In the market — and other fields of complex, messy human action — we cannot assign precise probabilities to anything. We are left with pure Bayesianism, with probabilities merely reflecting subjective human judgments about the future. And in valuing assets, as Keynes noted we are not even searching for the prettiest face, but for a prediction of what the market will deem to be the prettiest face.

This means that long run fears whether held by an individual or a minority or a majority are but ethereal whispers on the wind, far-fetched possibilities. It means that present crises like mass unemployment have a crushing weight of importance that potential imagined future crises do not have, and can never have until they are upon us. As the fighters of potential future demons — or in the European case, self-imposed present demons — suffer from high unemployment and weak growth in the present (which in turn create other problems — deterioration of skills, mass social and political disillusionment, etc) this becomes more and more dazzlingly apparent.

But in the long run, the historical record shows that crises certainly happen, even if they are not the ones that we might initially imagine (although they are very often something that someone imagined, however obscure). Human history is pockmarked by material crises — unemployment, displacement, failed crops, drought, marauders and vagabonds, volcanism, feudalism, slavery, invasion, a thousand terrors that might snuff out life, snuff out our unbroken genetic line back into the depths antiquity, prehistory and the saga of human and prehuman evolution. While we cannot predict the future, we can prepare and robustify during the boom so that we might have sufficient resources to deal with a crisis in the slump. Traditionally, this meant storing crops in granaries during good harvests to offset the potential damage by future famines and saving money in times of economic plenty to disburse when the economy turned downward.  In the modern context of globalisation and long, snaking supply chains it might also mean bolstering energy independence by developing wind and solar and nuclear energy resources as a decentralised replacement to fossil fuels. It might mean the decentralisation of production through widespread molecular manufacturing and disassembly technologies. In the most literal and brutal sense — that of human extinction — it might mean colonising space to spread and diversify the human genome throughout the cosmos.

Ultimately, we prepare for an uncertain future by acting in the present. The long run begins now, and now is all we have.

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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.

The Next Industrial Revolution

Large, centrally-directed systems are inherently fragile. Think of the human body; a spontaneous, unexpected blow to the head can kill an otherwise healthy creature; all the healthy cells and tissue in the legs, arms, torso and so forth killed through dependency on the brain’s functionality. Interdependent systems are only ever as strong as their weakest critical link, and very often a critical link can fail through nothing more than bad luck.

Yet the human body does not exist in isolation. Humans as a species are a decentralised network. Each individual may be in himself or herself a fragile, interdependent system, but the wider network of humanity is a robust independent system. One group of humans may die in an avalanche or drown at sea, but their death does not affect the survival of the wider population. The human genome has survived plagues, volcanoes, hurricanes, asteroid impacts and so on through its decentralisation.

In economics, such principles are also applicable. Modern, high-technology civilisation is very centralised and homogenised. Prices and availability are affected by events half way around the world; a war in the middle east, the closure of the Suez Canal or Strait of Hormuz, an earthquake in China, flooding in Thailand, or a tidal wave in Indonesia all have ramifications to global markets, simply because of the interconnectedness of globalisation. The computer I am typing this into is a complex mixture — the cumulative culmination of millions of hours of work, as well as resources and manufacturing processes across the globe. It incorporates tellurium, indium, cobalt, gallium, and manganese mined in Africa. Neodymium mined in China. Plastics forged out of Saudi Crude. Bauxite mined in Brazil. Memory manufactured in Korea, semiconductors forged in Germany, glass made in the United States. And gallons and gallons of oil to ship all the resources and components around the world, ’til they are finally assembled in China, and shipped once again around the world to the consumer. And that manufacturing process stands upon the shoulders of centuries of scientific research, and years of product development, testing, and marketing. It is a huge mesh of interdependent processes. And the disruption of any one of these processes can mean disruption for the system as a whole. The fragility of interconnection is the great hidden danger underlying our modern economic and technological paradigms.

And even if the risks of global trade disruptions do not materialise in the near-term, as the finite supply of oil dwindles in coming years, the costs of constantly shipping so much around and around the world may prove unsustainable.

It is my view that the reality of costlier oil is set over the coming years to spur a new industrial revolution — a very welcome side-effect of which will be increased social and industrial decentralisation. Looming on the horizon are technologies which can decentralise the means of production and the means of energy generation.

3D printers — machines that can assemble molecules into larger pre-designed objects are pioneering a whole new way of making things. This could well rewrite the rules of manufacturing in much the same way as the rise of personal computing discombobulated the traditional world of computing.

3D printers have existed in large-scale industry for years. But at a cost of $100,000 to $1m, few individuals could ever afford one. Fortunately, improved technology and lowered costs are making such machines more viable for home use. Industrial 3D printers now cost from just $15,000, and home versions for little more than $1,000. Obviously, there are still significant hurdles. 3D printing is still a relatively crude technology, so far incapable of producing complex finished goods. And molecular assembly still requires resources to run on — at least until the technology of molecular disassembly becomes viable, allowing for 3D printers to run on, for example, waste. But the potential for more and more individuals to gain the capacity to manufacture at home — thereby reducing dependency on oil and the global trade grid — is a huge incentive to further development. The next Apple or Microsoft could well be the company that develops and brings home-based 3D printing to the wider marketplace by making it simple and accessible and cheap.

Decentralised manufacturing goes hand-in-hand with decentralised energy generation, because manufacturing requires energy input. Microgrids are localised groupings of energy generation that can vary from city-size to individual-size. The latter is gradually becoming more and more economically viable as the costs of solar panels, wind turbines (etc) for energy generation, and lithium and graphene batteries (etc) for home energy storage fall, and efficiencies rise. Although generally connected to a larger national electricity grid, the connection can be disconnected, and a microgrid can function autonomously if the national grid were to fail (for example) as a result of natural disaster or war.

Having access to a robust and independent energy supply and home-manufacturing facilities would be very empowering for individuals and local communities and allow a higher degree of independence from governments and corporations. Home-based microgrids can allow the autonomous and decentralised powering and recharging of not just home appliances like cooking equipment, computers, 3D printers, lights, and food growing equipment, but also electric vehicles and mobile communications equipment. Home-based 3D printing can allow for autonomous and decentralised design and manufacturing of useful tools and equipment.

The choice that we face as individuals and organisations is whether or not we choose to continue to live with the costs and risks of the modern globalised mode of production, or whether we decide to invest in insulating ourselves from some of the dangers. The more individuals and organisations that invest in these technologies that allow us to create robust decentralised energy generation and production systems, the more costs should fall.

Decentralisation has allowed our species to survive and flourish through millions of years of turbulent and unpredictable history. I believe that decentralisation can allow our young civilisation to survive and flourish in the same manner.

The Shape of Global Parasitism

A couple of days ago Buttonwood over at The Economist touched on my favourite topics: the growth of the Western service industry, the death of Western manufacturing, and the deep interconnectedness of the global economic system. His hook was that most claims of parasitism are at best not-straightforward, and at worst are unfounded. From The Economist:

Are all manufactured goods intrinsically superior to services? Would you rather have a wig or a haircut? Just as there is only so much food we can healthily consume, there is only so much physical stuff we need. We have service-dominated economies because people like to consume services from TV programmes through video games to leisure activities like eating out. When General Motors sells a car, the chances are that it is selling it to someone who works in the services sector; so who is the parasite in this situation?

At the national level, we can say that most countries cannot produce all the things they need (or at least desire). Britain, for example, needs food from abroad. So it needs industries that can export stuff in order to generate the earnings that pay for imports. Here the bankers start to look a lot more valuable; Britain’s invisible earnings from financial services are highly valuable.

A more realistic question might be “would I rather have a factory making hair clippers, or a cabal of lawyers, financiers and bureaucrats who readily declare themselves too-big-to-fail and hose themselves down in taxpayers’ liquidity?”

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