Thursday, February 16, 2017

This Is How the Status Quo Unravels: As the Pie Shrinks, Everybody Demands Their Piece Should Get Bigger

Fragmentation, discord, discontent, class war: this is the inevitable result of a shrinking pie.
The politics of the past 70 years was all about horsetrading who got what share of the growing pie: the "pie" being cheap energy, government revenues and consumption, sales and profits.
Horsetrading over a growing pie is basically fun. There's always a little increase left for the losers, so there is a reason for everyone to cooperate in a broad political consensus.
Horsetrading over a shrinking pie is not fun. Everybody is shrilly demanding their piece of the pie should either grow or be left untouched; any cuts must come out of someone else's slice.
Everyone turns on their most compelling emotion-based defense: "we wuz promised" is a reliable standard, as is "we need more money to defend the nation from the rising threat of XYZ." "Help those in need" plays the heartstrings effectively--as long as the "help" comes out of somebody else's pocket.
Everyone sharpens their knives, the better to carve a slice off somebody else's slice of the pie. A passive-aggressive free-for-all ensues as everyone reacts with aggrieved defensiveness to any attempt to diminish their slice, even as they launch shrill attacks on everyone else's defense.
As the pie shrinks, the motivation to join a broad consensus vanishes like mist in Death Valley. Any cooperation is merely a brief tactical move designed to carve a big chunk off another player's slice. Once that's accomplished, the alliance quickly splinters as the survivors battle over the meager spoils.
Any victory is temporary, as a new alliance will arise to decimate the previous winner. Winners in the zero-sum game of divvying up a shrinking pie merely set themselves up as the juicy target for the next ferocious attack by the resentful losers.
Political survival boils down to masking the cuts behind illusory "victories" and bogus projections of solvency. Some modest policy tweak will be heralded as "saving Social Security," meanwhile the end result is a reduction in the purchasing power of whatever benefits remain.
You may well get "what we wuz promised" but it will only buy 50% of what it did a few years ago, after taxes, inflation and "adjustments" are factored in.
Every compromise will be projected to restore solvency to imploding entitlement programs, but it will all be illusion. In two years, insolvency will rear its ugly head again.
The debts, unfunded liabilities, demographics and diminishing pools of income to tap are beyond policy tweaks and minor cuts. Take a look at these charts to grasp the unwelcome realities: sorry, we can't "grow our way out of debt" because the debts and unfunded liabilities are simply too large and expanding at too fast a rate.
Here's the current federal spending pie: 55% is entitlements and interest. Both of those are set to soar as the populace ages and interest rates rise.
Massive, ever-expanding deficits will push federal debt much higher, pushing interest rates up. Everybody wants to raise taxes on "the rich," but a funny thing happens when tax revenues soar above a threshold--the economy spirals into recession, and employment, profits and tax revenues all plummet, forcing even higher deficits.
Entitlement program deficits are exploding higher, and all the conventional policy fixes are like building sand castles to stop a tsunami.
The problem is global: as we consume the cheap energy, what's left to extract and refine is more expensive, so energy costs rise. As the population ages, entitlements soar. As the "growth fixes everything" model fails under the burden of skyrocketing debts, the harsh reality becomes unavoidable:
We haven't "grown" at all. What we've done is borrow from future generations to create the illusion of growth.
Here's another look at debt: the global bond market has soared from $10 trillion to $100 trillion.
Fragmentation, discord, discontent, class war: this is the inevitable result of a shrinking pie. Our political, social and economic systems have no history or memory of how to navigate this systemic Degrowth successfully. Everyone will blame someone else for the insolvency and failure, and that is not a recipe for successful adaptation.
Here's a taste of what lies ahead:
As I always say, don't focus on retiring comfortably; focus on working comfortably.


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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Political Consensus Is Splintering into Class Wars

Understanding how these many wars will be waged is critical to surviving them intact.
In years past, we spoke of class war between the haves and the have-nots. It's no longer that simple. Now the traditional political consensus is splintering into multiple class wars between overlapping camps of the protected and the unprotected, those who've been promised entitlements and privileges that are no longer affordable and those expected to pay more taxes.
In the modern era, the phrase Class War is rooted in the socialist/Marxist concept that the conflict between labor (the working class) and capital (owners of capital) is not just inevitable—it’s the fulcrum of history. In this view, this Class War is the inevitable result of the asymmetry between the elite who own/control the capital and the much larger class of people whose livelihood is earned solely by their labor.
In Marx’s analysis, the inner dynamics of capitalism inevitably lead to the concentration of capital in monopolies/cartels whose great wealth enables them to influence the government to serve the interests of capital. Subservient to capital, the laboring class must overthrow this unholy partnership of capital and the state to become politically free via ownership of the means of production, i.e. productive assets.
This Class War did not unfold as Marx anticipated. The laboring class gained sufficient political power in the early 20th century to win the fundamentals of economic security: universal public education, labor laws that prohibited outright exploitation, the right to unionize, and publicly funded pensions.
(The alternative explanation for this wave of progressive policies is that prescient leaders of the capital/state class ushered in these reforms as the only alternative to the dissolution of the status quo. Labor reforms began in Germany and Great Britain in the late 19th century Gilded Age, and another wave of reforms were enacted in the decade-long crisis of capitalism in the Great Depression.)
Though the conventional view is that this failure of capitalism to devolve as expected proves Marx’s analysis is without merit, it can also be argued that the state-capital partnership was far more flexible than early Marxists anticipated: sharing enough of the wealth generated in the industrial revolution with the laboring class to enable a stable, productive middle class benefited the state-capital class by creating a new strata of consumers (of goods, services and credit) who greatly enriched industrial and financial capitalists and the state, which could raise unprecedented sums in payroll and income taxes.
Basking in the luxury of hindsight, it’s easy for us in the present day to forget the often-violent struggles between labor and capital that characterized the early 20th century: anarchists bombed Wall Street, and the Powers That Be sent in armed forces to suppress efforts to unionize entire swaths of industrial workers.
While the middle class of professionals, small business owners, traders and entrepreneurs can be traced back to the birth of modern capitalism in the 15th century, the emergence of a mass middle class of tens of millions of wage-earners with the purchasing and borrowing power created by stable employment was a unique feature of 20th century capitalism.
In effect, the middle class was the Grand Truce in the class war: the state’s imposition of regulations and a social safety net on unfettered capital resolved labor and capital’s primary conflict by sharing the output of capitalism’s bounty.
Many assets had to be put in place to enable this vast distribution of wealth to tens of millions of laborers: a cheap, abundant source of energy (fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas), an efficient, accessible transportation network, a financial system that could extend credit to millions of households, and a government with the tax revenues and resources to fund public works that were too risky or out of reach for private-sector capital.
In the latter third of the 20th century, the permanence of this version of state-capitalism was unquestioned: laborers would always be able to enter the middle class, and opportunities for advancement would always be open to those with middle class access to education and credit.
There was no compelling reason to believe this consensus was about to fray and potentially dissolve, and no reason to think that rather than being a permanent feature of advanced capitalism, the middle class was a one-off based on cheap energy, surging productivity and the boost-phase of credit expansion.
But now income and wealth inequality are rising sharply, and capital is pulling far ahead of labor, which is creating a vast and quickly-widening divide between the classes.
Class Warfare: It’s More Than Just Income
Fast-forward to today, and an unexpected series of class wars are emerging as this longstanding social contract frays: social mobility has declined, fostering a divide between the traditional working class (also known as the lower-middle class) which finds itself increasingly exposed to the corrosive winds of globalization and neoliberal policies, and the upper-middle class of highly educated professionals and technocrats who have benefited from these policies, securing protected employment in higher education, government and Corporate America.
Commentator Peggy Noonan’s influential essay described America’s nascent class war as pitting the protected class—those with secure pay and benefits —against the unprotected class of those with insecure employment and benefits.
In other words, the divisive economic issue is not simply the quantity of each class’s income and wealth, but the quality of their respective economic security.
For example, if an unprotected household earns $80,000 in wages and $30,000 in benefits in a good year of full employment in benefits-rich jobs, and $30,000 in wages and no benefits in the following not-so-good year of zero-benefits part-time work, their average total earnings are $70,000 per year—a very respectable middle class income.
But compare the difficulties posed by losing healthcare benefits and getting by on a $50,000 decline in wages vs the secure $70,000 earned year-after-year-after-year by a protected household.
Consider the anxieties burdening the insecure household of two workers who cannot count on having benefits and full-time employment, who see their savings or retirement accounts built up in good years drained in bad years. Houses bought in good years are forced into foreclosure in bad years.
To take another example: compare the security of a tenured professor in higher education with the insecure zero-benefits earnings of a lecturer whose annual teaching contract is subject to cancelation or modification every year of his/her career.
Not only is the lecturer paid about half the salary of the tenured professor, when the lecturer nears retirement age, he/she has no pension other than Social Security, while the tenured professor has an ample retirement package of pension and healthcare coverage. Both taught the same number of years, but one faces a sunset of poverty or the need to keep working far past the conventional retirement age of 65, while the other can retire comfortably and continue teaching or doing research for satisfaction rather than financial necessity.
The underlying problem is the number of tenured positions is far smaller than the number of qualified candidates. The overproduction of highly educated workers is dividing the middle class into haves and have-nots along new fault lines.
Class Warfare: Economic and Cultural
This widening gap between the Protected and the Unprotected is not just economic; it's also cultural.
The Mobile Cosmopolitans who secure protected positions have little exposure to the challenges of the unprotected, whom they typically interact with only as an employer giving instructions to maids, nannies, dog-walkers, waiters, etc. Sociologist Charles Murray described this widening cultural gap in his 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.
Murray made the case that America’s cultural elite—the mobile, highly educated and largely urban upper middle class, i.e. the protected class—is a reservoir of the traditional values (marriage, attending church, setting goals, etc.) that are fading in working-class unprotected America.
Murray posited that various behaviors and associations characterize each class. The working class, for example, volunteers to serve in the U.S. military, while the elites are in civilian positions of power (for example, those who order the working-class volunteers into America’s permanent wars.) The working class attend NASCAR races, the elite class pursues cultural enrichment, and so on.
While many commentators view Murray’s conclusions as overly negative, the recent presidential election has heightened the cultural divide he described between Hillary Clinton’s "deplorables" (who President Obama chided for their attachment to "guns and Jesus") and the self-described (and oh so morally superior) "progressives."
(The word is in parentheses because I have suggested that these self-anointed "betters" are at best fake-progressives, as they support exploitive neoliberal policies that are anything but progressive.)
It’s painfully obvious that the economic division between protected and unprotected overlays all too well on Murray’s cultural divisions.
The upper-middle "progressive" class has the sort of social/financial mobility and security—both higher quantities of income and wealth and higher qualities of security--that are out of reach of most of the country's much larger number of unprotected households.
All the advantages that accrue to the upper-middle class—social mobility, access to higher education minus the crushing burdens of student loan debt, family and social connections that lead to lucrative careers, parents who can afford to give their offspring cars and down payments for homes—are accretive: each reinforces the others.
The intensity of life’s challenges is considerably different for each class. With higher income and greater security (such as having stable healthcare insurance), the protected class can afford to take better care of themselves; they have multiple layers of financial cushions against life’s inevitable difficulties such as layoffs, illnesses that require sick leave/costly procedures, auto accidents, etc.
For the protected elites, the intensity of these challenges is lessened by financial and social resources. Social connections lead to new employment in the same profession, gold-plated healthcare insurance covers most of the costs of illness, and ample auto insurance replaces the wrecked vehicle with minimum disruption.
Meanwhile, to the unprotected household, each of these difficulties is potentially devastating: a secure job may never be replaced, an illness may lead to bankruptcy, and the loss of a reliable vehicle may cripple the household’s ability to get to work and earn the money needed to buy another car.
The social contract of the 20th century established state-funded safety nets for those who experience layoffs and medical emergencies. But these programs were by and large designed to provide temporary aid to those who were “getting back on their feet.”
As the foundations of middle class mobility and security erode, these programs are now morphing into permanent, lifelong welfare systems. This is creating new social stresses and divisions.
The Pitchforks Are Being Sharpened
But this protected vs. unprotected isn't the only Class War that’s brewing. Many of the protected feel their security is increasingly vulnerable, and others are tired of being tax donkeys. Everyone feels defensive and entitled to their current slice of the pie. As the pie shrinks, few will relinquish their claims voluntarily.
The net result: a shattering of political consensus into warring camps.
In Part 2: The Class War Playbook we show why the shrinking resource pie—of cheap energy, of cheap debt, of labors’ share of the economy, of the low-hanging fruit of globalization—will soon cleave any mass movement into competing classes.
Our complex, interdependent civil society will spawn equally complex and interdependent class conflicts as a result. In short: there won’t be one class war, there will be many, raging across social, political and economic battlefields.
Understanding how these many wars will be waged is critical to surviving them intact.
Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)
This essay was first published on peakprosperity.com, where I am a contributing writer, under the title "The Coming Class War".

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

While Elites Played Empire, America Fell Apart

Dear Imperial America: the lifestyle you ordered is permanently out of stock.
Our extraordinary misallocation of national treasure and political power has set a banquet of consequences that few are willing to face, much less address head-on. If we had to sum up this vast misallocation, we might start by characterizing it as the result of a multitude of elites playing Empire with money borrowed from future generations.
We can start the list of extraordinary misallocations of national treasure with the Neocon's endless wars of choice. Ten years ago, estimates of the total cost of the Iraq misadventure were $3 trillion: Cost of Iraq War: $3 Trillion; Cost of Solar Plants to Power all 105 million U.S Households: $500 Billion (April 10, 2008)
(Yes, I know solar energy is not "the solution" due to intermittency, lack of storage, fossil fuels are needed to build and maintain the solar infrastructure, etc.--but the point is: would we be better off if we'd invested 20% of the money squandered on the Iraq misadventure on alternative energy, even with all its limitations?)
But this does not exhaust the list of extraordinary misallocations of treasure.Universities have found the funds to build grand edifices on campus (never mind the trillion dollars in student loan debt that funded the delusions of grandeur) while much of the rest of our educational infrastructure crumbles as deferred maintenance takes its inevitable toll.
Public transit systems such as the San Francisco Bay Area's BART always find the funds to pay for hefty raises and gold-plated benefits for employees and managers, meanwhile the system's core has crumbled due to--you guessed it--hundreds of millions of dollars in long-deferred maintenance.
While employee wages, benefits and pensions dominate local government outlays, maintenance is funded by selling bonds, which cost twice as much over the long run due to interest and other costs.
Where cities and counties once funded school maintenance and filling potholes out of tax receipts, now many locales demand taxpayers approve tens of millions of dollars in new bonds to pay for these basic infrastructure maintenance projects.
It has reached the point that even maintaining city parks requires borrowing millions.
Political elites have found that promising the impossible--lower taxes and increased benefits/entitlements--keeps them in power, and as long as the credit spigot of new government borrowing is wide open, there are no limits on how many more trillions of dollars in future interest payments can be promised to win re-election today.
The fact that this sets a toxic banquet of consequences for future taxpayers and beneficiaries--no worries, some future politico will have to sit down at that banquet:
Political and financial elites have lined their own pockets and insured the continuity of their own power by deferring boring, unsexy, you-get-no-votes-for-this maintenance. Want to be "popular" and win re-election? Ram through sexy new projects such as "affordable" housing (i.e. costly housing subsidized by taxpayers), extensions in mass transit lines, fancy new stadiums and student-services buildings--and pay for it all with borrowed money and by slashing boring, unsexy maintenance work.
The drama of the Oroville Dam is tied directly to the deferral of rountine maintenance: What You Need To Know About The Oroville Dam Crisis (interview with a civil engineering expert and Chris Martenson)
While we must ask cui bono (to whose benefit?) of scare-mongering estimates of deferred maintenance (one person's "required infrastructure" could be another person's pork-barrel project awarded as payback for political contributions), many of us can see a crumbling empire of deferred maintenance with our own eyes.
I can personally attest to city streets that were potholed 20 years ago that finally got repaved--but only after taxpayers agreed to pay double by borrowing millions for routine street maintenance that was previously paid out of tax revenues.
I see spalling concrete (concrete falling off due to rusting rebar) at major international airports, university buildings that are flooded due to poor drainage that should have been addressed decades ago, water mains that burst, sewer lines that are decades past their replacement date--the list is truly endless.
Dear Imperial America: the lifestyle you ordered is permanently out of stock.The banquet of consequences has already been served, and will only become more distasteful the longer we put off facing our skyrocketing debt, runaway elites and delusions of grandeur head-on.



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Monday, February 13, 2017

America's Outmoded "Factory Model" Educational System Needs to be Radically Reinvented

It's obvious that we desperately need a new decentralized, individualized and far more productive system of education.
I have long held that America's educational system is an outmoded "factory model" designed to produce interchangeable industrial and service workers en masse for an industrial economy of factories and a 1960s-era service sector that needed millions of employees with basic-skills: Is Our Education System Based on a Factory Metaphor? (November 15, 2005)
Our "factory model" funnels hundreds or thousands of students into set courses within large mechanistic plants, regardless of their individual attributes, strengths and weaknesses. Like an assembly line of manufactured items, some students are "rejects" who couldn't make the "quality control" grade, and they're thrown on the scrap pile.
what if a kid has no aptitude in math but is a near-wizard in metal-working? Do we scrap him because he didn't meet some factory-defined narrow standards for "knowledge worker"?
What about all the jobs which aren't in biotech and technology? What if we required basic understanding of making meals with real food rather than the processed contents of a box? What if we required kids to know how to fill out a Schedule C form (small business) for a tax return, or change the oil in their car, or install shelving, or fill out a loan application and understand credit, adjustable rate mortgages and deductibles in insurance policies? Aren't these skills more productive for the vast majority of workers than advanced math?
Perhaps the factory metaphor is precisely the wrong one in a rapidly evolving global economy. Maybe instead of cramming all kids into narrow channels of "competence," we should actively filter out kids whose skills, interests and strengths lie elsewhere than math and science: the culinary arts, graphic arts, marketing, welding, etc., all skills which cannot be shipped overseas as readily as those lauded "knowledge worker" skills of programming.
If a child finds math easy and interesting, then by all means let's encourage him or her to reach the highest levels of math and science. But if a child's strengths and talents lie elsewhere, let's replace the factory model with an individualized, tailored apprenticeships in which he or she can thrive and acquire skills which are just as valuable to our society as a whole as advanced math and science.

It's worth recalling that Steve Jobs' brief college career included a hands-on workshop in calligraphy. That apparently impractical interest, as we know, led directly to the Macintosh computer's built-in fonts and the desktop publishing revolution which Jobs' Apple Computer single-handedly launched in the late 1980s.
Can you calculate the value of what would have been lost if Jobs hadn't been free to follow his non-STEM interests? My own guess is hundreds of billions of dollars in software, hardware and improved productivity.
It's obvious that we desperately need a new decentralized, individualized and far more productive system of education. That is the core of my book The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy: The Revolution in Higher Education, in which I detail how we could design apprenticeships in virtually every field that would replace factory-model curriculum and teaching methods.
Technology is now enabling personalized learning that helps each student master the one absolutely essential skill: learning to learn on their own.
There have been a number of insightful critiques of the "factory model" of education (even if they didn't use that term)--for example, Deschooling Society (Ivan Illich) andPedagogy of the Oppressed (Paulo Freire).
A recent critique, Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the Twenty-First Century, discusses how to fix the costly disaster of funneling every child into a four-year college program. The thinking behind this catastrophe was idealistic: our goal should be to give every child a college education, so that "no child is left behind."
There are two fatal flaws in this idealistic thinking:
1. Funneling every child into a horrendously costly four-year university has stripped our economy of all the skills that aren't taught in college: welding, pipefitting, etc.
Reskilling America argues that we have purposefully let our practical-skills education decline in favor of the highly impractical goal of issuing millions of diplomas in gender studies, environmental studies, etc., four-year degrees that qualify the graduate to work in coffee shops or as Uber drivers.
Even STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degrees appear to be mismatched with the real-world job market in terms of what employers want students to know and the number of jobs in STEM that are actually being generated.
Evidence suggests that the number of tech/STEM jobs has remained constant for years, undermining the assumption that graduating 1 million STEM grads magically creates 1 million new STEM jobs in the real world.
2. Most students gain little of value from their four years of squandering $100,000+.
Graduates exit college with a diploma but few if any practical skills, few if any practical knowledge bases and few if any of the eight essential skills I describe in my book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.
Consider the study Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses which concluded that "American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students."
These charts illustrate the costs and diminishing returns:
The yield (in earnings) on the increasingly unaffordable college degree is declining sharply:
This idealistic goal has created a vast racket--higher education--that deliverslimited or no learning for a large proportion of students.
In all, from 1987 until 2011-12--the most recent academic year for which comparable figures are available—universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, according to the analysis by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
“There’s just a mind-boggling amount of money per student that’s being spent on administration,” said Andrew Gillen, a senior researcher at the institutes. “It raises a question of priorities.”
The ratio of nonacademic employees to faculty has also doubled. There are now two nonacademic employees at public and two and a half at private universities and colleges for every one full-time, tenure-track member of the faculty.
The number of employees in central system offices has increased six-fold since 1987, and the number of administrators in them by a factor of more than 34.
I have demonstrated in my book The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy: The Revolution in Higher Education that the tuition for a higher education apprenticeship/credential could (and should) cost $5,000, not $100,000 or $200,000.
The technology and tools already exist to accredit the student, not the institution and provide distributed courses, adaptive learning and real-world, workplace-based workshops for a tiny fraction of the cost of the ineffective, unaffordable factory model of higher education we are currently burdened with.
Once costs decline 95%, there is no need for student loans or the bloated bureaucracies currently overseeing the parasitic student-loan system.
Once we accredit the student, not the institution, existing universities will compete directly with Nearly Free Universities not in issuing diplomas but in how much students actually learn and master. If students can learn as much or more for $5,000 (including workshops in real-world workplaces) than they do for $160,000 in conventional universities, then the sectors of higher education that charge $160,000 for a 4-year degree will vanish.
In essence, technology has leapfrogged the outmoded, ineffective, unaffordable factory model. It's time to scrap the factory model (optimized for 1960) and create an individualized apprenticeship model that accredits the student, not the institution--a model optimized for the 21st century economy.



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