Was I wrong?

A while back I boldly asserted that:
1 The current financial crisis will be short lived and have less economic effect than many are currently predicting.
2. We are on the edge of one of the most productive and expansive periods of human development in the whole of our history.

The last couple of weeks have certainly challenged that view. People I really respect, like Billmon, are clearly very worried and they know a lot more about it than me. But cheery little ray of sunshine that I am and despite all the evidence to the contrary, I think I still hold on to my bold assertions. There are still vast amounts of cash sloshing around in the system and just maybe the current crisis is enough to wake up the people controlling that cash to stop chasing after fairy gold and move in to some of the very real opportunities for productive investment, promising real long term returns, that await those ready to move in to the Next Civilisation.

Remember who we are up against

“‘The point everyone misses,’ wrote economist Robert Chapman a decade ago, “is that buying derivatives is not investing. It is gambling, insurance and high stakes bookmaking. Derivatives create nothing.”1 They not only create nothing, but they serve to enrich non-producers at the expense of the people who do create real goods and services. In congressional hearings in the early 1990s, derivatives trading was challenged as being an illegal form of gambling. But the practice was legitimized by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who not only lent legal and regulatory support to the trade but actively promoted derivatives as a way to improve “risk management.” Partly, this was to boost the flagging profits of the banks; and at the larger banks and dealers, it worked. But the cost was an increase in risk to the financial system as a whole.2

Since then, derivative trades have grown exponentially, until now they are larger than the entire global economy. The Bank for International Settlements recently reported that total derivatives trades exceeded one quadrillion dollars – that’s 1,000 trillion dollars.3 How is that figure even possible? The gross domestic product of all the countries in the world is only about 60 trillion dollars. The answer is that gamblers can bet as much as they want. They can bet money they don’t have, and that is where the huge increase in risk comes in.”
“1. Quoted in James Wesley, “Derivatives – The Mystery Man Who’ll Break the Global Bank at Monte Carlo,” SurvivalBlog.com (September 2006).

2. “Killer Derivatives, Zombie CDOs and Basel Too?”, Institutional Risk Analytics (August 14, 2007).

3. Kevin DeMeritt, “$1.14 Quadrillion in Derivatives – What Goes Up . . . ,” Gold-Eagle.com (June 16, 2008)”

(I wouldn’t usually quote from something like Ellen Brown‘s blog, “The Web of Debt”, which may be on the wilder edges og the blogosphere, but in this particular case both the argument and figures in the quote seem pretty sound and worth remembering.)

A flock of giant canaries

Chicken Little may be right and the sky is falling down, but I think what is more likely is that we are seeing a flock of giant canaries gasping for breath. The turmoil in the financial markets, the surge in the price of oil and the floods in the USA and India can all be seen as warnings that our two hundred year old experiment is moving in to toxic territory. My biggest fear is that we will recover from these shocks too quickly. (This does not mean I have no sympathy for the hapless victims of these shocks who simply want to get on with their lives, I do.) But I am concerned that just as the lessons from the oil shocks in the Seventies were swiftly forgotten, we may find that as things return to “normal” in two or three years time, we will forget the message from our giant canaries that if we want to retain the benefits of our current ways of life we will have to change the way we organise and manage our life on this planet, starting now.

Does this sound a bit like purposive drift?

“Life in a complex world, and a life which reflects and values the complexity of both self and world, requires the ability to improvise–to deal with, and indeed to create, the unforeseen, the surprise. Interestingly, the Latin root of improvisation is improvisus, or unforeseen. Increasingly, it seems, life in or out of organizations requires of us the ability to both react appropriately to unforeseen events, and actually generate those events–to act creatively and innovatively. Football players have to react to surprising moves from the opposition, and also generate moves that catch opposing players off guard. They have to feed off the opposition’s mistakes, the contingency of the bouncing ball, and the condition of the pitch. A jazz musician both generates novelty, by making rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic choices that are surprising, and reacts to the novelty generated by his or her fellow band-members. A piano player might place an unusual chord behind a soloist in what would normally be a predictable harmonic progression. This creates a slightly different context, a surprise, which can lead the experienced improvising soloist to find new ways to navigate a song. This kind of creative dialogue is at the heart of much of what makes jazz a unique art form….Creativity and improvisation might be said to serve at least a dual role, therefore. They allow us to adapt in our own way to complex environments, and they allow us to express our own (inner) complexity through the performance of our interaction with the world. The concept of improvisation is, I believe, crucial to the existential reality of complexity.”
Alfonso Montuori

An ancient motive

Tim Parks has an interesting article in today’s Guardian about Gregory Bateson. My favourite bit is a quote from Bateson himself:
“We social scientists would do well to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand. The fact of our imperfect understanding should not be allowed to feed our anxiety and so increase the need to control. Rather our studies could be inspired by a more ancient, but today less honoured, motive: a curiosity about the world of which we are part. The rewards of such work are not power but beauty.”
The only modification I would like to make to Bateson’s statement would be to change the first sentence to, “We would do well to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand.” and then it could apply to all of us.
Note: The Bateson quote is from “Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology” first published in 1972, pp 269

Because we can

“… An enormous, and largely speculative, literature attempts to interpret anything important that our brains do today as direct adaptations to the environments that shaped our earlier evolution. Thus, for example, religion may be a modern reflection of behaviors that evolved to cement group cohesion among savanna hunters. But religion might as well record our human response to that most terrifying fact that a large brain allowed us to learn (for no directly adaptive reason)- the inevitability of our personal mortality. I suspect that most of our current cognitive life uses the nonadaptive sequelae of a large brain as exaptions, and does not record the direct reasons why natural selection originally fashioned our large brain.”
Stephen Jay Gould, “The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (Hardcover)”, Jonathan Cape, 2006, pp232-233

Worth repeating

Today I started writing a piece on the relationship between luck and success. Looking through some of my earlier posts on this theme, I found this that I wrote over three years ago that I thought was worth repeating in full:
More than luck
Early last year I posted a short piece, “Mostly Luck”, where I drew attention to an interview in Edge with Nassim Taleb and his view that the key factor in whether someone became a millionaire or not was luck. I was reminded of that post by another interview in Edge with the social pyschologist, Philip Zimbardo where he says:
“When you grow up in a privileged environment you want to take credit for the success you see all around, so you become a dispositionalist. You look for character, genes, or family legacy to explain things, because you want to say your father did good things, you did good things, and your kid will do good things. Curiously, if you grow up poor you tend to emphasize external situational factors when trying to understand unusual behavior. When you look around and you see that your father’s not working, and you have friends who are selling drugs or their sisters in prostitution, you dont want to say its because theres something inside them that makes them do it, because then theres a sense in which its in your line. Psychologists and social scientists that focus on situations more often than not come from relatively poor, immigrant backgrounds. That’s where I came from.”
I was going to leave it at that, but writing on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, what he has to say in the rest of the interview seemed too important to neglect. To crudely summarise what he has to say, yes bad people do bad things, but more importantly good people put into bad situations also do bad things. I urge you to read the full interview, where he puts forward a more nuanced argument.
For myself I take away three thoughts from the interview.
The first, is that talk of ‘evil’ and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people is largely an obstacle to doing anything to create a more decent human world. It simply puts any reasoned explanations and hence any preventive action beyond anything we can do much about.
The second is that if we want people to behave well we should give more attention to designing in civility into our institutions, organisations and built environments. If you like, an extension of Oscar Newman’s ideas about defensible space.
The third is that we should do more to celebrate those people who ‘do the right thing’ even in situations where everything conspires against it. The sad fact is that those extraordinary people are more often punished than acknowledged, despite the lip service we pay to their moral courage. Perhaps, we should create something like a Nobel prize to celebrate those people who display human decency in intolerable situations.”
(More than luck, January 26, 2005)

Something to ponder

“… One-third to one-half of humanity are said to go to bed hungry every night. In the Old Stone Age the fraction must have been much smaller. This is the era of hunger unprecedented. Now, in the time of the greatest technical power, is starvation an in. situation. Reverse another venerable formula: the amount of hunger in. creases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture. This paradox is my whole point. Hunters and gatherers have by force of circumstances an objectively low standard of living. But taken as their objective, and given their adequate means of production. all the people’s material wants usually can be easily satisfied.
The world’s most primitive people have few possessions. but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilisation. It has grown with civilisation, at once as an invidious distinction between classes and more importantly as a tributary relation that can render agrarian peasants more susceptible to natural catastrophes than any winter camp of Alaskan Eskimo.”

Marshall Sahlins