Category Archives: Economics

Taking Charlie Munger Down A Notch (#criticism, #Buffett)

Next to Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger is the closest thing to a god amongst men that you can find if you speak to the average value investor. A brilliant investor like his partner, Munger is also known and appreciated for his acerbic wit, outspoken, curmudgeonly personality and especially his famed “multi-disciplinary” approach to knowledge and auto-didacticism. Munger’s big idea is that to be a truly swift thinker, one must familiarize oneself, at a minimum, with all the big ideas of major intellectual disciplines and categories of scientific inquiry so that one can see how the pieces intertwine and thereby utilize multiple mental models for solving problems.

Problems arise when one relies on ideology or one mental framework to solve all problems, even all the problems within one discipline, because reality is multivariate and dynamic and rarely conforms to the models (which are usually abstractions simplified for the very purpose of making them more useful for explaining the model’s own conception of reality) in an accurate fashion.

On it’s face, Munger’s insight is a valuable one, and well said. He’s generally correct that many scientists, academics, investors, politicians and other “problem solvers” become the victims of their own inability to see beyond the narrow confines of their chosen models. There’s just one problem.

Munger himself doesn’t really get as many “big ideas” as he advocates and as a result he tends to personify that caricature of an armchair theorist who can think circles around the focused folk that they so passionately despise. He attempts to speak in a conversant fashion with ideas he hasn’t taken the time to seriously inquire upon, and his constant reuse of a limited number of examples and names-dropped serve to highlight that, while Munger may know enough to be dangerous in his chosen field of investing, he is far from knowing enough to pull off the polymath at which he plays. The result is an embarrassing schtick that, if you’ve heard it once you’ve heard it a million times– even if it’s well polished schtick, it’s nothing more than a sales pitch.

True creative thinkers come up with different things to talk about each time you have a discussion with them. Sales people toe the line and repeat their mantra.

To give a few examples of what I mean, I refer to a recently transcribed lecture Munger gave at Harvard-Westlake (a prep school in Southern California) in early 2010 in which he managed, in my opinion, to intellectually embarrass himself numerous times in one evening.

Let’s start with Munger’s take on the regulatory sins committed during the Greenspan era:

With academia failing us, now we turn to what happened with our regulators. Well, Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve overdosed on Ayn Rand. Basically he kind of thought anythingthat happened in the free market, even if it was an axe murder, had to be ok. He’s a smart man and [a] good man, but he got it wrong. Generally, an over-belief in any one ideology is going to do you in if you extrapolate it too hard, and that’s what happened in economics.

Where to begin? First, Rand

[This post was never finished.]

The Open, Free Intellectual Environment Of The American University (#academia, #education)

A fellow investor friend of mine sent me an e-mail today and suggested I read “What’s the point?” by UK fund manager Terry Smith. We were originally talking about Michael Burry’s commencement speech at UCLA [PDF] and the idea that one of the things that was so extraordinary about it is the way he unmasked the villains and the corruption and spoke the truth unapologetically in such a public forum. I had also, in an earlier e-mail, complained about my lack of interest in blogging, feeling frustrated lately at the nearly overwhelming volume of fallacious bullshit floating around the net that seems to deserve a response yet leaves me tired and bored out of my mind every time I attempt another mud wrestling fiasco.

I don’t know if my frustration inspired the link to Terry Smith or if it was simply the next step in the theme of telling it like it is or what, but that blog post got me thinking. I’ve long thought about giving it one last hurrah and then hanging up my hat. Because, seriously, what is the point? You can tell the truth a million times but if your opponent is bent on lies and deceit, nothing can be done. (Of course, Mises adopted the slogan, from Virgil, of “Tu ne cede malis”, but he’s a smarter man than I, with more energy, apparently.)

In light of this, I wanted to share three critical experiences I had in college during my sophomore, junior and senior years, respectively, which have stuck with me to this day and serve, subtlety and fundamentally, to color my view of the intellectual Opposition. I believe my experiences are not unique, although few people besides me may have had the required awareness to realize it, and as such where I went to school back then is not important to the story. This is not about an institution but rather the institution of the American academic system and its culture as it exists today, and likely has existed for awhile before now and probably longer still in the future.

I want to give some insight into why I find it hard not to be dismissive of many people who claim to think differently than me on various philosophical subjects.

I first became suspicious of my academic curriculum when I learned that microeconomics was not a prerequisite for macroeconomics. Rather than being treated as fundamental knowledge built upon and reexamined from a more global standpoint in macroeconomics, microeconomics was treated as a separate discipline entirely, which could be studied before, during, or after macroeconomics or even not at all (at least, if you weren’t concerned about getting an economics degree). Of course, numerous macroeconomic theories contradicted accepted wisdom taught in the microeconomics course, but no explanation was given as to the nature and source of these apparent contradictions, nor where it was in the economic causal chain that things stopped making micro-sense and started making macro-sense. There was simply a dichotomy in place and you were expected to accept it and move on.

In my second year I was excited to take a class with a professor teaching “international trade” (you know, the separate set of economic principles and rules that apply when two people exchange goods across imaginary political boundaries). Everyone I knew who had taken the class spoke highly of this professor as a competent and entertaining lecturer and said the material itself was quite fun. We spent a lot of time in that class studying the roles of quotas, tariffs and other government interference in the economy. It was really about political economy, not economics, because economics doesn’t change when you move stuff over imaginary lines.

But what rubbed me kind of raw in the class was when this beloved professor spoke quite approvingly of the idea, built into his theoretical examples in class, of providing “transfer payments” (read: violent redistributive extortion for special interest groups carried out by the government) to currently privileged groups who would be “hurt” by “free trade”. This professor advocated that paying these highwaymen off and reaping the benefits of freer trade was a good idea in the long run.

“Uh, question, professor– wouldn’t it be best to just have free trade, without a complicated system of quotas, tariffs and transfer payments to interest groups? Isn’t that most economically efficient? Why don’t we learn about that?” This question got a knowing smirk and a request to meet the good professor privately during office hours to discuss, as there simply wasn’t enough time in lecture to discuss such twaddle.

Dutifully, I scheduled some office hours time to meet with the beloved professor and discuss. Again, I posed the question to him, why are we paying these people off? Isn’t it better to let them figure out their own way to survive a competitive market place without getting welfare from everyone else? After all, they have no right to a certain income or position within the market place. Again, a knowing smirk as the professor launched into a short anecdote about how he once was full of piss and vinegar like I about these subjects. But the truth of the matter, he told me, was more complicated.

And then he, in so many words, spilled the beans– if “we” don’t bribe these special interest groups with redistributive social justice, they’ll get their pitchforks and their torches and elect another Hitler. That was it. That was why he doesn’t teach actual free trade economics in his course. That’s why he thinks transfer payments are good. That’s why he was for FDR’s New Deal and the Social Security scam. He saw it as the only thing standing between us, and Hitler.

I tried to make the point that if you fear totalitarianism, transfer payments are actually a step toward totalitarianism, not a step away. He responded by suggesting that granting these dictator-electors-in-the-wings a little welfare would create some kind of social anchor where we’d go no further toward socialism past that point, having bought the evildoers off. Nevermind people tried to buy Hitler off and he just asked for more until he went to war. And nevermind that the US government has had to move far, far beyond the New Deal since then to keep neo-Hitler at bay, according to his logic.

At this point, having no response to my observation of yet another contradiction, I was informed that office hours had suddenly come to an end (I’d only been there for thirty minutes and had scheduled an hour and I didn’t see anyone waiting in the hall for an audience) and that although he really enjoyed our conversation, he was going to have to ask me to come visit with him during the summer to continue the conversation. Of course he knew I was an out of state student who would be returning home during the summer so he was actually dodging his responsibility to make sense of his intellectual positions.

I left his office reeling in confusion and frustration. Here is a guy that my peers think is one of the best instructors the university has to offer, he is considered to be a thoughtful and intellectual person, etc. Yet, I come to find out he is teaching disingenuously. He is guilty of the “smuggled premise”, that is, his economic values taught in his class have nothing to do with sound economic reasoning but rather a personal, political belief that is never named nor mentioned which is thereby “smuggled” into the lessons. Instead of being honest and telling his students “I am teaching you a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make economic sense, because I think it makes political sense”, he carries out his pedagogical mission in such a way that he exploits his students ignorance and credulity.

Why can’t this professor just tell everyone what he really believes? Are we not old enough for the truth? Did we not pay for the truth? Do we not expect the truth?

To say I was disappointed by this experience would be an understatement. But I tried to put it behind me as I continued my economic studies.

(I apparently became so frustrated writing this post originally that I never finished it and can not, at the present time, remember the other two episodes I intended to use to illustrate my point.)

Book Blog – The Great Deformation, Part II “The Reagan Era Revisited” (#politics)

Book Blogs are notes about books I’m reading, as I read them. They may or may not be followed up by wholesale reviews in traditional format.

The Great Deformation, by David A. Stockman published 2013 (buy on Amazon.com)

David Stockman was the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 1981 through 1985 until he resigned in frustration from the Reagan White House. The desire to set the record straight on a failed political crusade (“The Reagan Revolution”) by a knight who feels betrayed by the politics of the crusade itself is strongly felt throughout Stockman’s polemical revisionism of the Reagan years and the regimes that set the stage for this period and whose stage was set in turn by Reagan’s failed policies.

In Part II, Stockman asserts that the Reagan defense budget process resulted in an unprecedented commitment to real top line growth that was arbitrary in calculation and resulted in almost no creation of additional anti-Soviet nuclear deterrent capability which was the stated need for the top line increase. Instead of getting more nuclear subs and nuclear-tipped ICBMs (which Stockman insists weren’t needed anyway), the Reagan spending was used to greenlight hundreds of billions of dollars worth of conventional military purchases on DoD shopping lists ranging from naval carrier groups to attack helicopters to tank fleets and front line soldiery. Not only was the supposed Soviet nuclear buildup non-existent due to the Soviet Union’s own decrepit economic system and ill envisaged forays into places like Afghanistan, but this conventional force build-up could do nothing to stop a Soviet nuclear first strike and in time proved to be good for nothing other than projecting American imperial might across the globe via conventional military conquest and occupation of targeted nations. The spending increase accomplished little more than to further exacerbate the problem of federal deficit finance and the future financial bubble of the late 90s and 2000s because the increase in spending was not offset with additional tax increases.

Stockman also challenges the idea that Reagan cut back on welfare entitlements. Stockman argues that he tried but then gave up under political pressure during the failed “Schweicker” gambit. This resulted in Republican acknowledgement that federal welfare entitlements such as the Social Security Administration were political sacred cows, committing the government to continued and growing structural deficits related to their funding and concluding in the short term with a Republican administration stewarding a thinly veiled payroll tax increase under the Greenspan solvency plan. Stockman suggests this was a critical political turning point for the Republican party which led them to shed their last fiscal conservancy feathers in favor of a more Keynesian stance of attempting to juice the economy through periodic tax cuts and business subsidies rather than by imposing fiscal rectitude on the government’s programs by cutting spending.

Now an obvious question at this point is, why didn’t all this spending and deficit finance create hyperinflation in the US as the Fed balance sheet tripled and bank credit expanded by an even greater multiple? Stockman’s answer is that when Nixon screwed the monetary pooch by deciding the freely float the US dollar, he ended up getting a free pass because the major trading partners of the US, especially in Asia (read: China and Japan) engaged in competitive currency devaluation to maintain their currency pegs. And the reason they did this is because their governments and local politics were dominated by mercantilist beliefs and export-oriented structures. Letting their currencies and interest rates rise against the US dollar would have caused painful adjustments to occur in home markets and industries that the various political regimes had no interest in making. The end result is that Nixon’s arbitrary gaming of the US economy via direct monetary manipulation in order to secure an economic boom as he approached reelection did cause problems and inflationary pressures at home (including unprecedented jumps in peacetime cost of living indexes and a commodity price boom) but it did not get completely off the rails because global central banks, guided by their home regimes, wouldn’t let it.

Again, Stockman argues that this was not only a short term economic disaster for the country, but it was also a long term political disaster because the fact that this happened under a Republican administration and was signed off on by the biggest “free market economists” of the day after the meeting with Nixon at Camp David meant that going forward there would be no real political or intellectual resistance to the agenda of perpetual deficit finance and continuous bubble-making in the economy that such a fiscal regime allows for.

Book Blog – The Great Deformation – Part I, The Blackberry Panic Of 2008

Book Blogs are notes about books I’m reading, as I read them. They may or may not be followed up by wholesale reviews in traditional format.

The Great Deformation, by David A. Stockman published 2013 (buy on Amazon.com)

I received a copy of David Stockman’s 2013 analysis of the mechanics of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath as a gift from a friend and sat down to read the first 50 pages, Part I.

I think Stockman attempts to make several key points as a set up to the remainder of this lengthy tome:
-the mainstream/regime narrative of an incipient economic crisis catalyzed by a financial collapse originating in Wall Street credit markets controlled by major Wall Street institutions (such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs) is one part baseless lie and one part clueless ignorance of facts on the ground at the time
-there was a crisis, for these particular institutions, which was a result of years of non-value adding financial and accounting chicanery enabled by Fed Chairman Greenspan’s infamous “put” and the crisis would’ve resulted in the liquidation of these firms assets (and the termination of their managers) into abler hands which would’ve been a good thing for competitive financial markets and the capitalist economy as a whole
-this crisis was not only averted by the frantic lobbying of connected officials in Congress, the Treasury and other regulatory agencies by crony executives in the affected firms, but these same executives and officials worked in concert to turn the bailout moment into a massive payday/profit opportunity; most of the people making decisions about this in the government, particularly in the Treasury and the Fed, were inexperienced, miseducated or otherwise rankish amateurs with little understanding of the context of their decisions or their consequences beyond the immediate moment
-the scale of the bailouts in terms of pure dollars was completely without precedent or connection to actual costs and risks present in the system at the time
-memoirs of officials and executives involves in the bailout discussions published extemporaneously do not make a substantial case for their decisions based off of data available about the period years later
-much of the decision-making at the time, by concerned executives as well as captured officials, seems to be dominated by the twin desire to avoid taking responsibility for mistakes made in the past (thereby looking foolish) and to continue the illusion of the viability of the system based on these mistakes going forward

“All the rest,” as it has been said, “is illustration.”

There were parts of the narrative I found confusing to follow at times. Its possible I didn’t read clearly, but in several instances it seemed like on one page or at the beginning of a chapter Stockman would be arguing that the potential capital losses of a particular company were small enough relative to their total balance sheet that they could easily sweat the loss from a survival standpoint and then on the next page or at the end of the chapter, he seemed to suggest the same loss was so sizeable that it would threaten the viability of the enterprise itself.

I think there was a lot of question-begging in the narrative as well. Stockman builds a decent logical case for why there was no “contagion” that could spread from Wall Street (the financial markets) to Main Street (the rest of the economy) that would result in a general economic depression. But his argument always rests on the costs being shifted to various government backstop agencies and funding sources which could make things like commercial lending and payroll finance markets “money good”. It isn’t explained where these institutions would come by the required funds necessary to remain in operation without a bout of money printing (bailouts) and how this is different than the bailouts Wall Street received.

That leads to another concern I have with the overall thesis, which is that somehow, what happens on Wall Street is arbitrary and doesn’t affect greater economic outcomes. While I agree with the notion that purging the financial system of bad debts and bad business models during periods of crisis is a process of economic health rather than economic illness, I so far fail to see how the repricing and reorganization of economic capital taking place in these markets would not result in similar repricings and reorganizations of capital investment throughout the economy as a whole. Stockman details several multi billion dollar examples of ” predatory financial practices” in which members of Main Street America were able to finance lifestyles they couldn’t prudently afford the costs of and it seems like these are prime (or subprime, as it were) examples of assets that would need to be repriced and reorganized into abler hands. The gutters of both Streets would be filled with the purged excess, and it would eventually drain.

Annoyingly, Stockman repeatedly exalts “our political democracy” and even conflates its goodness and functioning with free market capitalism. For me, this is a fundamental flaw in reasoning and defining terms that throws his entire analysis into suspicion, at least from the standpoint of his analytical framework operant and his own agenda in terms of desired social outcomes. I don’t think Stockman and I are on the same page, in other words.

So far, Stockman’s book expects a lot of prior knowledge on behalf of the reader. He doesn’t begin the book outlining his economic or financial theories, nor his concept of the purpose of government. We intuit bits and pieces of it as he proclaims this bad, that person good, this event horrid, etc. But he never really says “I’m from the School of X” or gives a summary of the key principles necessary to follow his analysis. Therefore, it comes off as strenuously assertive rather than rigorously logical. And I think part of Stockman’s goal is to spread blame in a bipartisan fashion, while building bridges and giving accolades in an “independent” manner. So far, though, it seems arbitrary due to this lack of explanation about his framework.

On Conspiracy (#conspiracy, #snowden, #NSA)

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who deny the existence of various conspiracies behind well-known human events because they believe it’d be too hard to keep a secret with the assumedly large number of people who would have to be in on it to pull off the original act.

I want to ignore the possibility, which I’ve raised, that secrecy isn’t even necessary because many times people will ignore or not recognize criminality right in front of their face (ie, the ongoing, millenia-long fraud of the State).

Instead, I want to reflect on the following current events. Nearly every week for the past several months, new information about global national “security” apparatus spying has come to light thanks to the efforts of Edward Snowden and his allies. Each one of these stories are billed as surprising revelations not previously known.

I don’t think there has been any specific disclosure of how many people at the various agencies fingered are involved in each of these various schemes but it seems safe to say they are “numerous.” I don’t know what kind of upper bounds a person would put on the number of members of a conspiracy required to keep a secret but I’d have to believe, given that these agencies occupy fairly large office buildings and other campuses around the country and the world, that the number of operatives exceed those thresholds.

How, then, did these programs manage to remain a secret?

To take this further, how do “intelligence communities” manage to operate at all given that they, too, are “numerous” and their entire model operates on the assumption that secrets can be kept despite their numerosity?

If I were to venture a guess, I’d say the answer lies with recognition of the fact that people have strong incentives to keep secrets concerning criminal or otherwise socially-reprehensible activity they’re engaged in. Especially when such activity constitutes their “job” which provides food for their families, or, even more powerfully, when such activities line up with their ideological beliefs, whose faithful following gives their lives purpose and meaning.

I think it unwise to overly discount the economic likelihood of conspiracy.