RobinHood to the Rescue?

The Game Stop trading scam has brought public attention to the destabilizing relationship between hedge funds and the underlying stocks. Briefly, a hedge trade is a pair of transactions with a specified closing date. The investor can either buy or sell at the current price, and benefits respectively if the price is up or down (respectively) at the future date.

In theory, this is intended to allow corporations to mitigate against price rises in commodities such as grain or steel. They promise to buy the commodity at a price higher than the current market value, but are protected if the price rises beyond that point. That risk is borne by traders who get a guaranteed profit if the price remains stable. In this scenario, hedge funds are a kind of insurance.

The extension of hedge funds to stocks has no inherent economic utility. Such traders are akin to gamblers on sporting events. The possibility for manipulation arises when market-makers are also hedge traders. When a market maker announces a forecast, they reorganize their portfolios to match, in effect making the forecast come true. When hedge traders get involved, the effect of the forecast is amplified. It is exactly this process that caused the 2008 mortgage melt-down.

The solution is already known to us. This was the same phenomenon that almost destroyed the Euro market. Short-sellers were betting against the Italian, Spanish, and Greek currencies. Because the Euro zone required each government to keep its currency in a trading band, they were forced to shore it up, borrowing money that caused the currency to continue to soften. The manipulation stopped when the German government stepped in tactically to shore up the Greek currency, reversing the short-sellers’ positions and wiping them out.

In American investment markets, this was the role meant to be played by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – which bought up one of the more sophisticated electronic trading companies during the Obama Administration. Lacking that governance, the RobinHood investors are playing that role. Unfortunately, many of those who piled on are not sophisticated enough to monitor the contracts placed by short-sellers. They will get stuck holding the bag when the price softens.

Trump’s Grand Slam

With Biden safely ensconced in the Oval Office, the most vocal concern of the political classes is redirect the passions of the dispossessed electorate that Trump seized from the GoP in 2016. This is not principally a political concern, as factors have aligned to undermine the Republican strategy of minority rule. Trump did not certify the census, and with control of the both houses of Congress and the White House, Democrats can act rapidly to impose standards on election and apportionment procedures in the States. Power will tip to the Democratic Party, and the Republicans will confront the necessity of re-inventing themselves.

What are the forces that will define that re-branding? Politically, we focus on the ethno-nationalist minority of the party. As forgotten citizens, they – like seniors – have both motivation and time to organize politically, which brings them disproportionate power in the primary process. But they do not share the motivations that seal the loyalty of most Republican voters. For most Republican voters, the principal drivers are financial entitlement and resistance to reproductive self-determination. The latter is going to be resistant to reform, but the former is far more dangerous. They have money.

While most retrospectives on Trump’s presidency focus on his abusive manipulation of his adoring codependents, I think that we need to remember why Trump sought power in the first place. Trump’s twisted amplification of ethno-nationalism was almost a parody, but he was born into financial entitlement. That concerns provides a fairly coherent explanation for his policies while in office.

Remember that Trump did not enter the race intending to win. He wanted to build his brand. What was the nature of that brand? Trump leases his name to real estate developers around the world. Unfortunately, the brand was not compelling. Investigations of his business dealings in the Arab world showed that they were largely money laundering operations for organizations such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. This was also true of many of the investments made by Russians in the US property market.

But it was the only game he had. Remember his nominating convention, with “TRUMP” in 90,000 point font over the stage. This was not vanity. It was a branding.

Trump’s Administration was full of people like him. Mnuchin, Tillerson, Zinke, DeVos, and Ross were all of this mold. Others, such as Ben Carson, played the sport of presidential politics largely for the speaker’s fees. Among them were those who had come under scrutiny by the Obama Administration for consumer fraud or violation of foreign trade restrictions (Tillerson in Russia).

Trump and Tillerson were unique, however, in the global scope of their entanglements. The State Department hosted investigators sent out to scrutinize their activities, and attracted nationals seeking to curry favor by reporting on a man who had made himself Obama’s enemy. At home, the Department of Justice was the principal danger, with numerous investigations in Federal Districts underway. Treasury, auditing Trump’s tax returns, was another threat. All of these institutions were eviscerated or suborned for corruption.

And finally, there was the rest of corporate America, who considered Trump a buffoon. What we saw in Trump’s Administration was lifted directly from Vladimir Putin’s playbook in the aftermath of Boris Yeltsin’s abdication. Yeltsin was abused by the post-Soviet oligarchs, but Putin used his control over the levers of justice to slowly strangle them, eventually becoming de facto owner of Russia. This was Trump’s aim as well.

He almost succeeded. The financial markets soared, and the Wall Street Journal joined FOX News in giving Trump credit. What the market manipulators didn’t count on, though, was the method seized upon by Putin. There is no honor among thieves, and behind every wealthy man are ten underlings that would be happy to take his place. Trump cultivated them, and was perfectly satisfied that the Senate refused to take action on his appointees to vacant Cabinet positions. As for those beyond his reach: Trump’s attack on Jeff Bezos was a fascinating set-piece of global character assassination, and I assume that his Saudi Arabian allies participated with the aim of securing the arms they needed for their war in Yemen.

I am working on a craft project that will eventually manifest as a “Memorial to the Abuse of Privilege.” The foundation evokes the 400,000 COVID deaths in the last year of Trump’s term. The narrowness of the Biden victory should give us pause. It was not superior campaigning or a compelling vision of the future that propelled Biden to victory. Trump’s botched COVID response carried heavy financial consequences. The Lincoln Project sprang up to lead the opposition to his second term. I believe that without COVID, Trump would still be president, and American democracy would have died.

But talk to a Trump voter and QAnon conspiracist and you might be shocked. They want to go back to work because if we don’t, small business will die in America. They are not classically ethno-nationalist; they believe that the aggrieved ethnic and racial minorities have forgotten indentured servitude and corporate towns and the labor abuses of industrialization and violent suppression of unions and fighting in foreign wars and the deflationary gold standard and corporate welfare and globalization and think “Well, if you deserve restitution and opportunities, what about us?”

In other words, they recognize that the enemy are those that abuse privilege. They bet on Obama, and felt betrayed by his lax treatment of Wall Street raiders in 2009. If the Democrats choose to expose and fight global corruption, they’d win them back, and the Republican Party would have to drag its libertarian corporate pay masters back into a sustainable social contract.

Playing the Game of QAnon

In a chilling article, Reed Berkowitz analysis QAnon through the lens of game theory.

My response:

The author fails to recognize that society itself possesses these same characteristics.

Our minds are always looking for correlates: it is in fact designed into the cortex, which is a categorization system for sensory inputs. When a categorization is established, it sends axons out into the brain looking for other axions that are firing at the same time. When they meet, those correlations become higher-level categories.

Normally, our minds obtain rewards by finding correlates that allow us to reap resources from the outside world. The majority of America, however, is trapped in a reality of declining resources. The wealth earned by the Middle Class is being vacuumed up by the financial elite. Automation is undermining blue-collar work. Software distributes expertise, undermining local authorities. Lacking sources of wealth and meaning, middle America is collapsing.

Games become attractive only when players find that reality itself is unrewarding. Pointing out that QAnon is a game is no substitute for changing society so that it works for people. In fact, such change is the only way to prevent illusions from preying upon the forgotten.

Remember to Heal, Learn to Protect

At the Capital Mall memorial for the 400,000 dead of COVID, President Biden opined that remembrance is necessary to healing. This reflects the institution of Holocaust memorials, and the Vietnam Memorial wall. Great tragedies reflect a tearing apart in human nature, a locus in which dogmatism (Nazism, Colonialism, or Trumpism) tries to force society to conform to its views. To remember, as a psychic practice, is to confront lies with truth. Upon that foundation, we can then project the love that heals.

But healing is not enough.

We are on the “path of the knowledge of good and evil.” We cannot just paper over the past. Our burden is to understand it, and prevent its repetition.

Prior to the Sack of the Capitol on January 6th, Biden promised that he would “focus on the future.” That is an error. The perfidy of the last four years must be exposed, analyzed, and measures taken to guard against its repetition. While the Republican caucus – led by McConnell, Grassley, Nunes, Rosenstein, Graham, Sessions, and Trump – managed to squash full investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the DoJ must be tasked with completing a full national security and financial review. The FEC (Federal Election Commission) must be reconstituted and tasked with a complete review of campaign finance during the Trump Administration. Every Cabinet officer must be tasked with exposing self-dealing by their outgoing predecessors. Congress, which is allowed to define the framework under which States conduct their elections, must expose bias in existing practices and ensure all voters are represented. And apportionment, manipulated by the GoP’s “Red Map” algorithm following the 2010 census, must be constrained by fairness algorithms that prevent gross bias in favor of any political party.

Much wrongdoing will be exposed, and it might be politically importune to pursue legal sanctions against the perpetrators. But without knowledge, we cannot learn, and the last four years will be repeated.

Biden’s desire for comity is laudable, and the olive branch should always be held out. But that olive branch should not be a used as a shield by the enemies of democracy to prevent exposure of their wrong-doing. At the very least, Biden must allow Kamala Harris, long known as a lion in the fight against corruption, to exercise her skills to maximum effect.

Facebook as a Regulated Monopoly

One of the central tenets of the Constitution is equal access to information. This flow was recognized as essential in the commissioning of the US Postal Service, which ensured the delivery of mail. With the advent of the telephone service, a later generation of political leaders recognized that every citizen required access to the system, regardless of their proximity to urban centers. AT&T was established as a regulated monopoly to ensure that urban subscribers subsidized service provision to rural subscribers.

AT&T’s last accomplishment before deregulation was completion of a portable billing service that allowed numbers to cross geographical boundaries. This was the foundation for diversification of telephone service into cellular and VOIP (voice over internet protocol) services. But the physical infrastructure of the phone system was also the foundation for the internet, empowering services like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to provide content to all citizens.

Those service providers live in a regulatory gray zone. To support service creation, early ISPs were exempted from the standards imposed upon publishers of magazines and newspapers. Most importantly, in recent days, were exemptions from fact-checking of content. Classical publishers hired reporters and were exposed to liability claims when stories damaged the reputation or finances of those covered. In claiming that they were merely providing access to information without paying for content, ISPs were considered exempt. When Facebook and others established social media platforms, they registered themselves as ISPs, and also claimed those exemptions.

This is not to say that social media platforms do not provide financial incentives to content creators. Far from it. Popular “channels” receive a share of advertising revenues. Now the lines are becoming grey: classical publishers do buy content from “freelancers,” but still retain responsibility for insuring the accuracy of reporting. Could social media creators be seen as “freelancers?” If so, the social media platforms appear to be appropriately seen as “publishers.”

One argument against this is that social media platforms do not package content as a publication. There is no “Facebook News” service. But a publication is simply a way of attracting attention to branded content. Social media services do attract such attention, by recommending “content you might like” that is headed by popular channels. Popular creators receive more attention, and thus crowd out less popular creators. As these “recommendations” come under the branding of the social media site, they are in effect publications customized for the individual user, but actually guiding the user into conformance with the views of others like them.

The concern is most heightened in regard to political content, which has always been a rough-and-tumble game. In the thirty years since the founding of the internet, it has become clear that many consumers expect to be entertained by their news. On the left, The Daily Show arose, but under that aegis of a classical media empire that monitored the accuracy of content. On the right, Rush Limbaugh and then Alex Jones did not honor such constraints. Their goal was to cater to the grievances of their listeners with outrage, and to maintain that fever pitch, their fantastical claims became wilder and wilder.

The most outrageous among these were the “PizzaGate” and “Sandy Hook Hoax” stories promulgated by Jones. As well as suffering the loss of their children, Sandy Hook parents have faced harassment and death threats, and PizzaGate drove a listener to an armed invasion of the property.

With Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, I agree that it is time to hold Facebook and YouTube responsible for financing such incendiary content. When creator earnings reach a level commensurate with freelance work, they should be responsible for validating the content, and subject to liability for failing to take action when victims signal that they are being harmed.

In that case of Facebook and YouTube, such moves may be a matter of “too little, too late.” They are effectively monopolies. At this point, it seems prudent to tax revenues to establish external review boards to police content. They must be regulated, as AT&T once was, by overseers to ensure that our information systems serve the public interest.

Grievance’s Baby

Catie Edmunson at the NY Times reports on the GoP rallying against Josh Hawley, the 41-year-old senator from Missouri who – even in the aftermath of the murderous attack on the Capital grounds – insisted on disrupting the formal certification of the Biden/Harris administration.

This dance should be familiar to us. It is the same dance the cynical grandees, among them McConnell and Ryan, conducted with Donald. They are a little more practiced, but what they are doing is actually the source of the danger that we face as a nation.

Neither Donald nor Josh created the aggrieved Republican base. That base was created by decades of corporate welfare that hollowed out the American middle class, making us a debtor populace. The red states are, in fact, basically large company towns. The common man is forced to work at wages below subsistence while owners maximize profits. The cynical lie told by the GoP to these wage slaves, however, is that their predicament is the fault of government.

Read Nineteen Eighty-Four or A Brave New World. The public spaces are saturated with the lies of the ruling party. Visit a red state and notice that FOX News broadcasts from the screens in every space controlled by corporate interests. But where in the novels the propaganda raised fears against foreign enemies, on FOX News the specter is the enemy within.

Ronald Reagan instigated the war on government with his little quip “The nine most frightening words I know are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” FOX News, founded by GoP political hatchetman Roger Ailes, made that message a staple of its programming. The aggrieved condition of the Republican base has been carefully cultivated and manipulated ever since. For example, after the AHA was established, GoP governors refused to expand Medicare or form insurance exchanges, forcing the rural poor to pay for private insurance when they should have received government support.

So the GoP’s dance with Donald and Josh is simply about retaining control of the electorate that they have created. Donald wrenched it from them by unmasking the lie, campaigning against the “swamp” of Washington lobbyists. The GoP grandees tolerated him, at some level, because they believed that greed and stupidity would allow them to focus his attention. McConnell succeeded, for example, in packing the Federal court system with corporatists.

What McConnell and others didn’t remember is that – duh – they are sitting members of government. Donald actually needs the government destroyed to avoid imprisonment for decades of criminal activity. This matches the expectations of the aggrieved Republican base.

So we don’t see outright rejection of the claims of election fraud except from those previously ostracized by the party, such as Mitt Romney. Rather, we see Lindsey Graham testifying that the courts have already ruled on claims of election fraud, and “while [he doesn’t] agree with them,” the Senate has no method to challenge those rulings.

They don’t confront the lies because the lies are the foundation of their control over the rural poor. They are now trying to pre-empt Josh’s attempt to seize Donald’s standard.

The problem is that the messaging is out of their control now. The rage of the rioters in Washington was not restricted to the Democratic leadership. It embraced Mike Pence as well. The GoP base wants to see government destroyed, and the grandees appear not to be smart enough to fear the baby they have created.

The alternative is to tell the truth. The corporate elite controls the free market. They have that game rigged against us. In fact, government is the only method that allows us to organize to prevent them from grinding us into poverty. Government needs to work for us, and the most important job of a political party is to educate the people for collaboration that preserves the common welfare.

Box Score: Money 2, Value 1

Coming of age in the Reagan era, I failed to understand what I was witnessing. America abandoned manufacturing for services and ended up in a time warp.

As a corporate-level software consultant, my father Karl saw elements of this up close. Invited as a fellow traveler by the president of Wiley & Sons (the journal publisher), Karl sat in on the annual shareholder meeting. A careful investment plan charted growth in assets and employment. During the discussion, the CFO queried, “And what is the annualized rate of return on your plan?” With the follow-on to the response, “I can take that same money and make three times as much in the stock market.”

In that era, the stock market still reflected an investment in other people’s ingenuity. This year, as we approached the election, one Trumpie threatened, “Well, if Biden wins, you can be sure the stock market is going to tank!” The inescapable corollary is that the stock market is no longer an economic bell-weather but an instrument of political influence.

That influence is maintained through the ties between the Federal Reserve and the large banks. We are in the mind-numbing reality that the people that take care of our money no longer profit from making it grow, they profit by making it move. That may seem impossible, but the volume of real estate, trade, and government debt is so enormous that simply the placement fees run into the tens of billions of dollars annually.

The bind for the public is that the money center banks hold no interest in seeing the debt reduced. In fact, the Dow weathered recent financial crises because the Federal Reserve issued borrowing authority that the banks loaned to corporations to buy back stock. The value of stock is now linked to corporate debt.

And in the chaos only the financial system has a guaranteed benefit.

Was this intentional? Hardly, but it was inevitable. This is trumpeted by the liberal economists, but they misdiagnose the problem. I hope with this post to steer them in the right direction.

The liberal economists blame “capitalism.” Capitalism, coined by Adam Smith, is a recent innovation, seeing an effective implementation only in the industrialization of the Western world in the late 1800’s. Capitalism was actually a liberalizing social contract. It held that money and labor could collaborate to improve productivity. Higher productivity meant more money for investors and lower costs for labor. It was a win-win scenario.

Capitalism disproved the precepts of Malthus, who held that population growth would always overwhelm the benefits of productivity gains. In part, however, Malthus was proven right because political power was held by the moneyed noble class. Market control was awarded by royal writ, and once secured ensured resistance to innovation that might lead to diversification of supply. Stability of prices was also important to the nobility and their retinues, often sustained by stipends.

The crack in this hermetic system was warfare, and it was to finance their conflicts that the nobility turned to the banking system, leading to the coupling of political and financial interests that suppressed the development of liberal societies.

So the “Box Score” reads as it is because capitalism is now revealed as a brief interlude in the narrow marriage of politics and finance. It was an interlude during which finance married itself to the production of value and the growth of liberal societies.

Regardless of the outcome, the 2020 election proves at least one thing: that Donald Trump is a symptom, rather than a cause. The disease that created him is a return to the festering myopia of political and financial calculations freed from a concern for value or sustainability. Trump is used as a tool by that system to distract attention from the wizards behind the curtain. He is a live facsimile of the special effects in the Wizard of Oz.

How does this manifest in practical terms? Consider real estate. I was told recently that I had to get in the market, because prices would only go up. Looking over the finance package, I noted with surprise that is allocated 50% of my income to real estate costs, rather than the 30% typical of my youth. So the reason that real estate prices are going up is because the Federal Reserve, through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is issuing loans that allocate more of our income to the payment of interest. The increase in home prices has nothing to do with value – it follows from a systematic manipulation of political and financial levers to ensure that we are indebted.

But the fault is not with capitalism. Capitalism was a God-send. The fault is with something I would call “monetarism” – the pursuit of wealth in the absence of any concern for value.

The economic historian should recognize this plague. What should give pause to the rest of us is the proof, in the results of the 2020 election, that the disease is worse that an out-of-control pandemic that has the potential to kill millions of Americans.

I hope that our democracy survives while our liberalizing politicians adapt to that lesson.

On ProCreation

I could get theological regarding the tyranny of the “pro-life” movement. Read Genesis: “God breathed His Spirit into Adam, and made him a living creature.” Thus “Thou shalt not murder” does not translate to “every sperm is sacred,” it means “do not destroy any creature that has been inhabited by My Spirit.”

How do we know whether a little blob of cells has been inhabited by God’s spirit? Well, if you’re taking a strictly legalistic perspective, I’m certain that you don’t. You are actually part of a self-defeating, law-of-natural-consequences demonstration set up by God after the Flood. In effect, “As you won’t listen to me, try making your own laws, hmmm?”

John tells us God is Love. We are the instrument by which God redeems the world. The Savior was explicit: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of Heaven: what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” If we do not cast our blessing upon something, it is not inhabited by love.

What I do know is using the penalty of law to force a woman to carry an unwanted child is not loving her. If conceived of rape, such a law is in fact an act of hate speech. And any child born outside of a stable union will be denied love, and live in a world of reduced opportunities. The spirit that God sent into the world might actually prefer to wait until those opportunities are accessible.

God gave us a mind so that we could express creativity – and we should recognize that the only thing that separates creativity from destruction is a loving intention. Children should be brought into the world as an act of loving intention. The law has no influence over that process, and should simply keep its nose out of it. That would be the quickest way to render Roe v. Wade irrelevant.

RBG and Roberts’ Rule

The Founders carefully allocated responsibilities among the branches to protect citizens from governmental over-reach. The Executive Branch has flouted those boundaries throughout the Trump Presidency, with Cabinet officers finally acting not as protectors of the Constitution, but as lackeys in service to the whims of the POTUS. In Congress, McConnell has used obstruction to undermine legislative deliberation, and focused on packing of the Federal Courts with partisans – using the filibuster when not in power, and then eliminating it for most positions during the Trump era.

The Roberts Supreme Court was the last holdout in the corruption of the Founders’ intentions. That has been uneven. Roberts hypocritically criticized the House Impeachment Managers for questioning the motives of the Republican Senate in failing to call witnesses, demanding respect for the “world’s greatest deliberative body” that McConnell has corrupted. But at least in the last Court session, Roberts insisted that precedent be honored, siding with the liberal members of the bench when his conservative peers attempted to over-ride prior judgments from his court.

With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, that respect for precedent and the character of the Court is at risk. If Trump and McConnell succeed in seating a conservative ideologue, Roberts will find himself on the losing side in attempting to prevent arbitrary flouting of precedent.

The only method for restoring proper balance on the Court is for a Democratic-controlled Senate to mercilessly impeach Justices for judicial over-reach. The popular expedient – expanding the number of Justices – would be a mistake. Proper functioning of the Court requires thorough probing of the constitutional issues during oral arguments. As more Justices are added, that process will become unwieldly.

No, the proper approach is to erase McConnell’s legacy, just as he and Trump have worked to erase the legacy of our most popular politician (President Obama). Set up the impeachment express, and flush all the Conservative hacks out of the judiciary.

No Turning Back Now

In a nutshell: the last forty years (since Reagan) has been an exploration of the neo-conservative proposition that the only legitimate way to negotiate the distribution of power is the free market. It led initially to deregulation and then “trickle-down economics.” As the evidence mounted that those strategies were failing, the ideologues used their control of government to rig the system so that the subscribers to the ideology enjoyed financial success — a “tinkle-down” economics that undermined the operation of the free market.

What we are witnessing in 2020 is demonstration after demonstration that the profit motive, left unchecked, creates fragile systems that cannot survive disruption. To survive in this era, the public at large will move to make the economic elite irrelevant. That is evident in political exercises that insist “we will take care of those threatened by economic and political disenfranchisement.” Examples include the CARES and HEROES acts, lining up to vote during a pandemic, giving away food and drink to BLM protesters. The elite can attempt to pull the financial rug out from under these efforts, but what they will discover is that it is far easier to nationalize assets than it is to buy them. People without a stake in the system, looking into a future with no opportunity, will construct a parallel economy built around value, rather than profit.