Gun Control? No, Drone Control

The terrible massacre committed by a mentally-disturbed man in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday has prompted lots and lots of calls for gun control in the United States, as well as some calls for more help for the mentally ill.

There are some problems with both suggestions. First of all, the evidence shows that certain “treatments” for the mentally ill — specifically, SSRI antidepressants — are associated with shooting sprees. A 2006 study in the UK showed that antidepressants can cause severe violence in a small number of individuals. It is possible that increasing the screening and “treatment” for mental illness may result in more incidences of severe violence due to adverse reactions to antidepressants. (On the other hand some therapies like psychotherapy, music therapy, and art therapy might help certain individuals, but these are almost certainly less profitable for big pharma…)

But what about gun control? There is little doubt that in the coming years the gun-show loophole will be closed and Canadian-style longer waiting periods will be introduced. Semi-automatic weapons may well be banned. Buyback programs may be attempted. The Supreme Court might well even be stacked to achieve a majority that interprets away individual gun rights.

But America already has huge quantities of guns, far more than anywhere in the world:


The vast majority of America’s 285 million guns are in Republican states, which are unlikely to be disarmed easily, even with an overwhelming Federal consensus. Some might even try to secede from the Union.

And as the experience of many other countries including Britain and Australia shows, criminals and those with violent intent will still be able to get guns (the only people who will be disarmed are the law-abiding majority).

This trend is only likely to grow in coming years as technologies such as 3D printing make it possible for anyone with a 3D printer and an internet connection to potentially print a gun (and eventually, bullets):

Imagine an America in which anyone can download and print a gun in their own home. They wouldn’t need a license, a background check, or much technical knowledge, just a 3D printer. That’s the vision a cadre of industrious libertarians are determined to turn into reality.

Last week, Wiki Weapon, a project to create the first fully printable plastic gun received the $20,000 in funding it needed to get off the ground. The project’s goal is not to develop and sell a working gun, but rather to create an open-source schematic (or blueprint) that individuals could download and use to print their own weapons at home.

The technology that makes this possible is 3D printing, a process during which plastic resin is deposited layer by layer to create a three dimensional object. In the past few years 3D printers have become increasingly affordable, and just last week the first two retail stores selling 3D printers opened in the United States with models ranging from $600 to $2,199.

How is it possible to regulate that away? Ban 3D printing? Ban the distribution of gun schematics? Costly, damaging to liberty, and ineffective. The failed war on drugs makes this very clear — prohibition doesn’t work. Guns — like drugs — are a reality that society cannot just eradicate by passing laws. The mood has changed — America will try gun control. It won’t work — and may just make things worse. I wish we lived in a world without guns, but we don’t.

But there is a way forward. Very many of the mass shooters in the last two decades have a history of antidepressant use. If we want to stop mass shootings, maybe we should look at that.

And if we value life and are opposed to violence against innocents, why do we demand action when 27 innocent Americans die, but not when larger numbers of innocent Pakistanis, or Afghanis or Yemenis die?  One drone strike in Pakistan killed 69 children, dwarfing the impact of the Newtown massacre. With predator drones now in American skies, how long until the “collateral damage” (remember — the NDAA declared the entirety of America as a battlefield) eclipses the Newtown massacre? Or how long until a foreign power or terrorist group hacks into a predator drone (technically feasible) over America and uses it as a flying bomb?  And how many more terrorist attacks against America will be fuelled by anger derived from the civilian casualties of the drone wars?

Obama might cry for Americans in Newtown, but where are his tears for the Pakistani and Yemeni children he has slaughtered? And what about for the many victims who died as a result of thousands guns shipped by the US government to the Mexican drug cartels via Fast and Furious?

America might be ready to implement gun control. I wish America was ready to implement drone control.

When Currency Wars Become Trade Wars…

Beggaring thy neighbour has consequences. Neighbours might turn around and bite back.

China and the United States are already locked in an intractable and multilayered currency war. That has not escalated much yet beyond a little barbed rhetoric (although if China want to get a meaningful return on the trillions of dollars of American paper they are holding, one can only suspect that there will be some serious escalation as the United States continues to print, print, print, a behaviour that China and China’s allies are deeply uncomfortable with).

But Brazil are already escalating.

Brazil flag face

The Washington Post notes:

When the Brazilian economy began to stall last year, officials in Latin America’s largest country started pulling pages from the playbook of another major developing nation: China.

They hiked tariffs on dozens of industrial products, limited imports of auto parts, and capped how many automobiles could come into the country from Mexico — an indirect slap at the U.S. companies that assemble many vehicles there.

The country’s slowdown and the government’s response to it is a growing concern among U.S. officials worried that Brazil may be charting an aggressive new course — away from the globalized, open path that the United States has advocated successfully in Mexico, Colombia and some other Latin American nations, and toward the state-guided capitalism that the United States has been battling to change in China. As the world economy struggles for common policies that could bolster a still tentative recovery, the push toward protectionism by an influential developing country is seen in Washington as a step backward.

“These are unhelpful and concerning developments which are contrary to our mutual attempts” to strengthen the world economy, outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk wrote in a strongly worded letter to Brazilian officials that criticized recent tariff hikes as “clearly protectionist.”

And Brazilian officials are very, very clear about exactly why they are doing what they are doing:

Brazilian officials insist the measures are a temporary buffer to help their developing country stay on course in a world where they feel under double-barreled assault from cheap labor in China and cheap money from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing.

“We are only defending ourselves to prevent the disorganization, the deterioration of our industry, and prevent our market, which is strong, from being taken by imported products,” Brazil’s outspoken finance minister, Guido Mantega, said in an interview. Mantega popularized use of the term “currency war” to describe the Federal Reserve’s successive rounds of easing, which he likened to a form of protectionism that forced up the relative value of Brazil’s currency and made its products more expensive relative to imports from the United States and also China.

How long until other nations join with Brazil in declaring trade measures against the United States is uncertain, but there may be few other options on the table for creditors wanting to get their pound of flesh, or nations wishing to protect domestic industries. After all, the currency wars won’t just go away; competitive devaluation is like trying to get the last word in an argument. The real question is whether the present argument will lead to a fistfight.

Still Not Spreading the Wealth Around

Obama has always claimed to want to spread the wealth around. Yet, as I stressed this June (and in my first ever blog post way back in July 2011!) that’s the exact opposite of what he has achieved.

And it’s getting worse, not better.

Wages-as-a-proportion-of-GDP just hit another all-time low:


And corporate-profits-as-a-proportion-of-GDP just hit another all-time high:


Obama might throw a lot of rhetoric about fighting for the middle class.

But the reality has been the opposite. America today is all about the enrichment of big banks, financial corporations and the military-industrial complex, while the working class has rotted.

The truth of Obama’s policies (and successive administrations prior to Obama) is more concentrated wealth within the financial elites and Wall Street. Banks get bailed out. Campaign donors get stimulus money. And the middle class and future generations pay for it in taxation and the Cantillon Effect.

The Obama reinflation is a rotten bubble built on rotten foundations. Trying to reinflate the economy from a starting debt ratio of over 350% of GDP through crony corporatism and helicopter drops to the rich is an absurd notion that is doomed to abject failure.

And the growing gap between the rich and the poor is steadily beginning to resemble neofeudalism.

We’re All Currency Manipulators Now

The BBC reports:

The US has decided not to declare China as having manipulated its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage.

But the Treasury did say that China’s currency, the yuan, remains “significantly undervalued” and urged China to make further progress.

In its semi-annual report, it said Beijing did not meet the criteria to be called a currency manipulator, which could have sparked US trade sanctions.

Critics of China say it keeps the yuan low to keep its exports cheap.

There’s a point that no-one in the establishment will admit.

Every country with a central bank is by definition and without exception a currency manipulator.

Every country that devalues its currency to boost exports is a currency manipulator.

Every country that bails out banks is a currency manipulator.

Every central bank purchase of treasury securities, mortgage-backed securities or equities is currency manipulation.

Every central bank that inflates away treasury debt is a currency manipulator.

And that is why America would look clownish and absurd to label China a currency manipulator, when China can throw back the exact same accusation even more forcefully. China holds trillions and trillions of dollar-denominated assets.

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.

Obama Doesn’t Understand Blowback

There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself.

Barack H. Obama

Well, he’s got one thing right. No country would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. And that goes for Gaza just as much as it does for Israel. Having lived in what David Cameron referred to as a “prison camp” for all their lives — Israel controls Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters and border crossings — and living under constant threat of Israeli F16 and drone raids, should Israel really find it surprising that young Gazans are fighting back? Hamas may have a counterproductive and dangerous strategy driven by a violent religious ideology that ends up hurting the Palestinians more than anyone else, but that’s not the point. The point is that nations don’t tolerate missiles raining down on citizens. That’s just as true for Palestine as it is Israel.

There are other examples which Obama would do well to consider. In the first twenty four hours after his re-election, Obama ordered yet another drone strike in Yemen — setting the tone for the next four years. During the Obama administration drones — or perhaps more accurately, flying death robots — have rained down missiles across a vast tract of the world. Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia. Quite possibly also Iran and Syria. No trial, no hard evidence, just summary execution.

Every drone strike creates blowback. It increases hostility to Americans throughout that part of the world. It drives angry young people into the arms of violent extremists like the Taliban and Hamas. Because — as Obama rightly points out — no country would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. That means that in the long run Obama’s drone strikes are probably America’s greatest national security problem.

The Data That Won It For Obama

I wondered during the final debate whether Mitt Romney might steal a phrase from Ronald Reagan and ask Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago. It has worked for the Republicans before, and all the polling data pointed to the idea that voters were looking at the economy as the top issue.

Yet Romney did no such thing. Perhaps that was because by a number of significant measures, many Americans are better off than they were three or four years ago when America was mired in the epicentre of a global economic crisis. While America is in many cases just catching up to ground lost in the 2008 crash, and while many significant and real doubts remain about the underlying fundamentals of the American and global economies, the American economy has reinflated since early 2009.

Real GDP growth has been sustained:

The S&P500 has gone upward:

So has industrial production:

And total wages and salaries:

And here’s corporate profits:

And although total employment remains significantly depressed, headline unemployment has fallen (and those who have dropped out of the labour force have been entitled to expanded welfare programs):

It seems — although this was a very divided election — that these data provided enough juice to give just enough Americans the sense that although they may not be better off than they were at the turn of the millennium, under Obama things are improving just enough.

Certainly, some groups who have not fared well due to low interest rates such as seniors rejected Obama, too. Other groups, like women, deserted the Republicans on social issues. Yet Republicans looking for reasons why Romney ultimately lost probably need look no further than slow but steady reinflation.

Beneath the surface, this tepid reinflation is very much akin to the economy that got Bush re-elected in 2004. That recovery ended in mania and a bubble and finally a crash when subprime imploded in 2008. It is more than possible that this recovery is equally unsustainable and will end the same way, in crushing disappointment and grinding deflation.

Debt — the fuel of bubbles — is slowly growing again, from a perilously high starting point:

Deleveraging in the new quantitatively-eased environment has been very, very slow. This is a delicate and dangerous balancing act. Total debt levels as a percentage of the economy remain humungous and are a grinding weight on the underlying economy:

The Obama-Bernanke reinflation may well be an illusion built on the shakiest of foundations. And it may end more painfully than even the disastrous Bush-Greenspan reinflation. Yet it was enough to guarantee Obama re-election.

Why Nate Silver is Wrong

Famed pollster and sabermetrician Nate Silver is calling the US Presidential race for Obama, in a big way:

Silver’s mathematical model gives Obama an 85% chance of winning. The Presidential election is based on an electoral college system, so Silver’s model rightly looks at state-level polls. And in swing state polls, Obama is mostly winning:

This is slightly jarring, because in national polls, the two candidates are locked together:

So who’s right? Is the election on a knife-edge like the national polls suggest, or is Obama strongly likely to win as Silver’s model suggests?

While the election could easily go either way depending on turnout, I think Silver’s model is predicting the wrong result. In order for that to be the case, the state polling data has to be wrong.

There are a number of factors that lead me to believe that this is the case.

First, Republicans tend to outperform their poll numbers. In 2008, the national average got the national race just about right:

In the end, Obama won the election with 52.9% of the vote, against McCain who came out with 45.7%.

However, polls have historically underestimated Republican support. Except 2000 (when a November Surprise revelation of a George W. Bush drunk-driving charge pushed Gore 3.2% higher than the final round of polling), Republican Presidential candidates since 1992 have outperformed their final polls by a mean of 1.8 points. Such an outcome for Romney would put him 1.5% ahead in the national polls, and imperil Obama’s grip on the swing states.

Second, the Bradley Effect. The interesting thing about the swing states is that many of them are disproportionately white. The United States is 72% white, but Iowa is 89% white, Indiana is 81% white, Ohio is 81% white, Minnesota is 83% white, Pennsylvania is 79% white, New Hampshire is 92% white, Maine is 94% white and Wisconsin is 83% white. This means that they are particularly susceptible to the Bradley Effect — where white voters tell a pollster they will vote for a black candidate, but in reality vote for a white alternative. In a state in which Obama holds a small lead in state-level polling, only a small Bradley Effect would be necessary to turn it red.

This effect may have already affected Barack Obama in the past — in the 2008 primaries, Obama was shown by the polls to be leading in New Hampshire, but in reality Hillary Clinton ran out the winner. And many national polls in October 2008 showed Obama with much bigger leads than he really achieved at the polls — Gallup showed Obama as 11% ahead, Pew showed Obama as 16% ahead.

A small Bradley Effect will not hurt Obama where he is 7% or 11% or 16% ahead in the polls. But when polls are closer — as they mostly are in the swing states — it becomes more plausible than such an effect could change the course of the race.

And the Bradley Effect in 2012 may be bigger than in 2008. A recent poll by the Associated Press concluded:

A majority of Americans (51 percent) now hold “explicit anti-black attitudes” — up from 49 percent in 2008 — and 56 percent showed prejudice on an implicit racism test.

Finally, polls have tended to overestimate the popularity of incumbent Presidents, especially Democrats. In 1980, polls put Jimmy Carter 3% of his final tally, and in 1996 polls put Bill Clinton 2.8% ahead of his final tally:

Taken together, these difficult-to-quantify factors pose a serious challenge to Silver’s model. While it is fine to build a predictive model on polling data, if the polling data fed into the model is skewed, then any predictions will be skewed. Garbage in, garbage out.

I rate Obama’s chance of being re-elected as no better than 50:50. If Silver really rates his chances as 85:15, perhaps he should consider taking bets at those odds.


Obviously, Silver’s predictive model (and far, far more importantly the state-level polling data) proved even more accurate than 2008. However, the 2010 British General Election (in which polls and therefore Silver vastly overestimated the Liberal Democrat support level, leading to an electoral projection that was way off the mark) illustrates that there remain enough issues regarding the reliability of the polling data to ensure that Silver’s model (and similar) continue to suffer from the problem of fat tails. With solid, transparent and plentiful data (as Taleb puts it, in “Mediocristan”) such models work very, very well. But there remains plenty of scope (as Britain in 2010 illustrates) for polls to be systematically wrong (“Extremistan”). Given the likelihood that every news network will have its own state-level poll aggregator and Nate Silver soundalike on-hand come 2016, that might well be a poetic date for the chaotic effects of unreliable polling data to reappear. In the meantime, I congratulate the pollsters for providing Silver with the data necessary to make accurate projections.

Jobs For Boomers

Via Zero Hedge — as two Boomers battle it out for the White House, plenty of jobs for Boomers, crumbs for everyone else:

And here’s last month’s data:

I’m 25. This age-bracket has consistently shed jobs since 2009.

While the underlying reality beneath the statistics is undoubtedly complex and multi-dimensional, one factor has to be that younger workers are stuck in a kind of Catch-22. Many younger individuals are trapped with job little experience. To get experience, they need to get hired, and to get hired they need experience. In a depressionary environment, employers may be less willing to take chances with new employees, and so when hiring may more often choose experience over youthful enthusiasm and academic qualifications. That wouldn’t be a problem if the Boomers were retiring en mass. But with plenty of older individuals still in the work force — at least in part due to the very low-interest rate environment where returns on savings are meagre, and due to the depressed housing market that has left many underwater on their homes — the elderly are snapping up jobs and experience, and so consigning many younger individuals — even those with degrees — to flipping burgers, making coffee, the unemployment queue, or writing blogs.

Debt & Obesity

The waistline bubble began to expand at just about the same time as the debt bubble:

First, it’s important emphasise that correlation is not causation — more than 99% of murderers have consumed water in the twenty four hour period preceding a murder. But it is clear that the effects of globalisation are at play in both cases (simply because globalisation has transformed the American economy) – far fewer Americans have to do physically demanding manufacturing work, and thanks to the mechanisation of agriculture and food production there are far more calories-per-American available to consume.

The interesting difference between debt and obesity is that while it is possible from historical evidence to construct a fairly coherent model linking excess outgrowth in debt with recession and depression — for example, I conjecture that a depression becomes inevitable when debt service cost growth consistently outpaces income growth  — there is no such historical evidence available for obesity, because there has never in known world history been an obesity epidemic of such proportion, so there is no way to know how the obesity bubble may burst.

To what extent do the healthcare overheads of an obesity epidemic act as a drag on economic growth? According to an estimate by the CDC, $147 billion.

How much of a drag on the real economy is supporting those who have dropped out of the labour force due to obesity-related illness like diabetes, fatigue, depression and cardiovascular illness?

Well, we know that in the years that obesity has been exploding, that the disabled proportion of the workforce has almost tripled:

That’s almost 9 million individuals receiving Federal disability — almost six million more than we would have if the number of those receiving Federal disability was proportionate to the numbers at the beginning of the Ford administration. And if each disabled worker was contributing the per-capita average of $46,546 to GDP, the US would be producing roughly $279 billion more output. Even if only half of the increase is associated with obesity (a very, very, very conservative estimate) that equates to around $140 billion of  lost output. That — especially when considered next to the healthcare costs — is a pretty big gap, and that does not even begin to consider that the obese workers not on disability tend to be associated with lowered productivity.

So to what extent has the debt acquisition been an attempt to paper over the cracks of an economy increasingly losing productivity due to obesity and obesity-related illness, and to what extent is obesity linked to the current American employment and growth weakness?

Well, we know that it is possible to blow up a huge debt bubble without a high level of obesity, because Japan has been mired in a debt-fuelled depression for the last twenty years without any associated obesity epidemic, and because the Great Depression was preceded by a huge outgrowth in debt, but no such outgrowth in obesity. And certainly, the United States lives with far greater burdens than the effects of obesity — for example, the quantifiable burden of invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan has been greater in the past decade than the quantifiable burden of growing national obesity. This is not to mention the effects of job migration, maintaining a global empire with bases in over 150 countries, and bailing out Wall Street banks. Debt has been a means to paper over the cracks of lost productivity and an American empire living far beyond the means of its productivity — but there is far more to that than just the outgrowth in obesity.

But obesity is causing a significant output loss, which by definition contributes to the wider problems.