Sunday, December 10, 2017

Bitcoin vs Fiat Currency: Which Fails First?

What if bitcoin is a reflection of trust in the future value of fiat currencies?
I am struck by the mainstream confidence that bitcoin is a fraud/fad that will soon collapse, while central bank fiat currencies are presumed to be rock-solid and without risk. Those with supreme confidence in fiat currencies might want to look at a chart of Venezuela's fiat currency, which has declined from 10 to the US dollar in 2012 to 5,000 to the USD earlier this year to a current value in December 2017 of between 90,000 and 100,000 to $1:
On 1 December, the bolivar traded in the parallel market at 103,024 VED per USD, a stunning 59.9% depreciation from the same day last month.
Analysts participating in the LatinFocus Consensus Forecast expect the parallel dollar to remain under severe pressure next year. They project a non-official exchange rate of 2,069,486 VEF per USD by the end of 2018. In 2019, the panel sees the non-official exchange rate trading at 2,725,000 VEF per USD.
If this is your idea of rock solid, I'll take my chances with bitcoin, which currently buys more than 1 billion bolivars. Of course "it can't happen here," which is precisely what the good people of Venezuela thought a decade ago.
Gordon Long and I discuss Fiat Currency Failure (The Results of Financialization - Part IV) in a new 31-minute video. The bottom line is that fiat currencies are debt-based claims on future profits, energy production and wages, claims that are expanding far faster than the real economy and the productivity of the real economy.
In effect, fiat currencies and debt are like inverted pyramids resting on a small base of actual collateral.
If you look at the foundations of fiat currencies, you find loose sand, not bedrock. Massive mountains of phantom wealth have been created by central-bank inflated bubbles, bubbles based not on actual expansion of net income earned from producing goods and services, but on financialization, the pyramiding of debt and leverage on a small base of real assets.
"Free money" that accrues interest isn't free. Eventually the interest eats debtors alive, regardless of the debtor's size or supposed wealth.
Creating "free money" in unlimited quantities impoverishes everyone who holds the currency. In the initial boost phase, the issuance of "nearly free money" to borrowers, qualified or not, generates the illusion of prosperity. But once the boost phase ends, reality sets in and marginal borrowers default, inflation moves from assets (good inflation) to real-world essentials (bad inflation), and creating more "free money" ceases to be the solution and becomes the problem
Yes, cryptocurrencies are risky--but so are fiat currencies. Illusory "wealth" evaporates, and expanding credit-based "risk-free money" at rates that exceed the rate of expansion of the real economy reduces the purchasing power of all those holding the currency. Eventually trust in the currency, and in the authorities who control its issuance, erodes, and a self-reinforcing feedback loop turns the rock-solid currency into sand.
What if bitcoin is a reflection of trust in the future value of fiat currencies? Those dismissing bitcoin as a fad might be missing the point: trust in the authorities who control the expansion of fiat currencies might be eroding fast in a certain segment of the populace.
And more importantly, they might be right, and everyone who placed their trust in the authorities who control the expansion of fiat currencies ends up holding a handful of sand.



I'm offering my new book Money and Work Unchained at a 10% discount ($8.95 for the Kindle ebook and $18 for the print edition) through December, after which the price goes up to retail ($9.95 and $20).
Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

Marx, Robotics and the Collapse of Profits

Whatever commoditized robots can produce is no longer profitable; rather, the production destroys capital.
Yesterday I discussed how robots only do work that's profitable, as any enterprise buying, programming and maintaining robots to do unprofitable work will soon be out of business.
What few observers seem to grasp is that automation goes through two distinct stages of profitability: when robots/automation first replace high-cost human workers, profits soar. Observers then draw projections based on the belief that these initial profits will continue essentially forever.
But this initial boost phase of profits gushing from automation is short-lived;as the tools of automation are themselves commoditized and become available to anyone on the planet with some capital and ambition, lower cost automated competitors come to market, destroying the pricing power of the first adopter.
Once an enterprise is competing only with other automated enterprises, profits fall to near-zero as lower cost competitors emerge. Competitive advantages are small once a field has been commoditized/globalized, and there is little pricing power left except for brands that establish some cache people will pay extra to have and hold.
But everything that's been commoditized will no longer be profitable, as the competitive advantage of replacing human workers with robots vanishes once competitors have also replaced their human workers with robots.
Karl Marx described this dynamic of profits cratering and then vanishing in the 19th century. Marx described the consequences of over-investment in commoditized production and the resulting over-capacity: when anyone with access to investors or credit can buy the same machinery—that is, the machines are interchangeable commodities such as sewing machines, power looms, etc.--the capacity to produce rises as every competitor attempts to lower the unit cost of each product by producing more.
In other words, the only competitive advantage in an economy of commoditized machines and products is to increase production by over-investing in productive capacity. If competition has lowered the price of products, those who can double their production will achieve profitable economies of scale.
Over-investment and overcapacity are intrinsic dynamics of production; those who fail to invest heavily in increasing capacity will become unprofitable. Once their capital is destroyed, they vanish in insolvency.
As Marx explained, every enterprise is driven to pursue the same strategy, and the end result is massive over-investment and overcapacity. The flood of products overwhelms demand, and prices fall below the production costs.
Over-investment leads to overcapacity that devalues whatever is being produced.
This leads to a counter-intuitive result: over-investment destroys capital.
The na├»ve faith that robots will generate so much wealth that humans will have no work has it backward: over-investment in commoditized robots and their commoditized production will destroy capital, not create it.
Recall that enterprises don’t have profits, enterprises only have expenses. Robots will never be free, due to their intrinsic complexity and use of resources and energy. As robots and other tools of automation become commodities that anyone can buy, whatever robots can produce is devalued accordingly.
In other words, whatever commoditized robots can produce is no longer profitable; rather, the production destroys capital.
This leads to a startling conclusion: this destruction of capital must be subsidized by taxing whatever is still profitable, i.e. whatever cannot be commoditized or automated.
In other words, enterprises profiting from human labor that can’t be replaced by commoditized (interchangeable) robots will be subsidizing intrinsically unprofitable robotic production that destroys capital.
Exactly how will all these robots create unimaginable wealth when every moment they’re in production they’re destroying capital? It will fall to the remaining profitable enterprises and their human employees to subsidize the capital-destroying robots.
Robots can only perform profitable work, and in a fully commoditized production chain, very little production will be profitable. This raises a question: who will subsidize all the unprofitable robots? Who will buy them, program them, repair them and energize them? Who will subsidize all this capital-destroying work performed by robots?
The overcapacity intrinsic to automation destroys financial capital, globalized commoditization destroys social capital, and overconsumption destroys the planet’s natural capital.
The fantasy that robots will do all the work of stripmining the Earth to provide for our endless overconsumption, and generate vast profits doing so, is just another manifestation of an intrinsically destructive and unsustainable Mode of Production.


The opportunity to get a 25% discount on my new book vanishes tomorrow morning.
This essay was drawn from my new book, Money and Work Unchained, which I'm offering to my readers at a 25% discount ($7.45 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition) through Saturday, December 9, after which the price goes up to retail ($9.95 and $20).
Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Tom G. ($25), for your most generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Misunderstanding the Economics of Robotics

Robots are only cost-effective in the narrow niches of commoditized tasks.
In the view of Universal Basic Income (UBI) advocates, substituting robots for human labor will not only free virtually all humans from working, it will also generate endless wealth because the robots will be doing almost all of the work.
To reach a more realistic understanding of the economics of robots, let’s return to author Peter Drucker’s maxim: enterprises don’t have profits, enterprises only have expenses. In other words, from the outside, it looks as if businesses generate profits as a matter of course.
Enterprises don’t have profits, enterprises only have expenses captures the core dynamic of all enterprises: the only reliable characteristic of enterprises, whether they are owned by the state, the workers or private investors, is that they have expenses. Profits--needed to reinvest in the enterprise and build capital--can only be reaped if revenues exceed the costs of production, general overhead and debt service.
Robots are complex machines that require substantial quantities of energy and resources to produce, program and maintain. As a result, they will never be super-cheap to manufacture, own or maintain.
Robots, and the ecosystem of software, engineering, spare parts, diagnostics, etc. needed to produce, power and maintain them, are a large capital and operational expense.
The greater the complexity of the tasks the robot is designed to complete, the greater the complexity and cost of the robot.
Robots only make financial sense in a very narrow swath of commoditized production, or in situations such as war or hazardous rescue missions where cost is not the primary issue.
Compare the following two tasks and the cost and complexity of the robots needed to complete them in a cost-effective manner.
Task one: move boxes around a warehouse with flat concrete floors and fixed shelving mounted with hundreds of sensors to guide robots.
Task two: navigate extremely rough and uneven terrain with no embedded sensors, dig deep holes in rocky soil, and plant a delicate seedling in each hole. Each hole must be selected by contextual criteria; there is no pre-set grid pattern to the planting.
The first task has all the features that make robots cost-effective: easily navigable flat floors, fixed, easily mapped structures embedded with multiple sensors, and a limited, easily programmable repertoire of physical movements: stock boxes on the shelving, retrieve boxes from the shelving. The compact working space makes it practical to reprogram, recharge and repair the robots; spare parts can be kept onsite, and so on.
The second task--one of the steps in restoring a habitat--has none of these features. The terrain is extremely uneven and challenging to navigate; the varied surfaces may be hazardous in non-obvious ways (prone to sliding, etc.); there are no embedded sensors to guide the robot; it’s difficult and costly to service the robots onsite, and the task is extremely contextual, requiring numerous judgments and decisions and a wide variety of physical steps, ranging from the arduous task of digging a hole in rocky ground to delicately handling fragile seedlings.
Exactly what sort of robot would be capable of completing these tasks without human guidance? A drone might be able to ferry the fragile seedlings, but any drone capable of landing and punching a hole in unforgiving ground would be very heavy. Combining these disparate skills in one or even multiple robots—the heavy work of digging a hole in rocky soil on uneven ground, embedding a fragile seedling in just the right amount of compost and then watering the seedling deeply enough to give it a chance to survive—would be technically challenging.
And what profit is there to be earned from this restoration a public-land habitat? Since the habitat is public commons, there is no customer base to sell high-margin products to. If the state is paying for the job, it chooses the vendor by competitive bidding. Given the conditions, a vendor with human labor will likely be more reliable and cheaper, as this is the sort of work that humans are supremely adapted to perform efficiently.
Given that restoring a habitat generates no profit, perhaps the work is done entirely by volunteers.
In any of these cases, a costly array of robots facing a daunting challenge that could cause multiple failures (robots sliding down the slope, seedlings crushed, too little compost, compost over-compressed, water didn’t soak in, etc.) is simply not cost-effective.
You see the point: humans have few advantages in a concrete floor warehouse with fixed metal shelving. Robots have all the advantages in that carefully controlled environment performing repeatable, easily defined tasks. But in the wilds of a hillside jumble of rocks, fallen trees, etc., handling tasks that require accuracy, strength, judgment, contextual understanding and a delicate touch, humans have all the advantages.
In other words, robots are only cost-effective in the narrow niches of commoditized tasks: repeatable tasks that are easy to break down into programmable steps that can be performed in a controlled environment.
Those with little experience of actually manufacturing a robot may look at a multi-million dollar prototype performing some task (often under human guidance, which is carefully kept off-camera) and assume that robots will decline in price on the same trajectory as computer components.
But the geometric rise in computing power and the corresponding decline in the cost of processing and memory is not a model for real-world components such as robots, which will continue to be extraordinarily resource and energy-intensive even if microchips decline in cost.
Vehicles might be a more realistic example of the cost consequences of increasing complexity and the consumption of resources: vehicles haven’t declined in cost by 95% like memory chips; they’ve increased in cost.
Self-driving vehicles are another example of how commoditized automation can be profitable performing a commoditized task. First, roadways are smooth, easy to map and easy to embed with sensors. Second, vehicles are intrinsically complex and costly; the average price of a vehicle is around $40,000. The sensors, electronics, software and motors required to make a vehicle autonomous are a relatively modest percentage of the total cost of the vehicle. Third, manufacturing vehicles is a profitable venture with a large base of customers. Fourth, the actual tasks of driving—navigating streets, accelerating, braking, etc.--are relatively limited in number. In other words, driving is a commoditized task that lends itself to automation.
Once again, robots have multiple advantages in this commoditized task as they are not easily distracted, don’t get drunk, and they don’t fall asleep. Humans have few advantages in this environment. And as noted, manufacturing autonomous vehicles will likely be a highly profitable business for those who master the processes.
Since so much of the production of goods and services in the advanced economies is based on commoditized tasks, it’s easy to make the mistake of extending these very narrowly defined capabilities in profitable enterprises to the whole of human life. But as my example illustrates, a wide array of work doesn’t lend itself to cost-effective robots, as robots have few if any advantages in these environments, while humans are supremely adapted to doing these kinds of tasks.
In effect, proponents of Universal Basic Income (UBI) assume robots will be able to perform 95% of all human work, ignoring the limitations of cost: robots will only perform work that is profitable, and profitable work is a remarkably modest subset of all human labor.
But this is not the truly crushing limitation of robots; that limit is intrinsic to the economics of automation.
This essay was drawn from my new book, Money and Work Unchained, which I'm offering to my readers at a 25% discount ($7.45 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition) through Saturday, December 9, after which the price goes up to retail ($9.95 and $20).
Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
Thank you, Betty W. ($50), for your marvelously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2017

What Is Money? (Yes, We're Talking About Bitcoin)

Good ideas don't require force. That describes the Internet, mobile telephony and cryptocurrencies.
What is money? We all assume we know, because money is a commonplace feature of everyday life. Money is what we earn and exchange for goods and services. Everyone thinks the money they’re familiar with is the only possible system of money—until they run across an entirely different system of money.
Then they realize money is a social construct, a confluence of social consensus and political force-- what we agree to use as money, and what our government mandates we use as money under threat of punishment.
We assume that our monetary system is much like a Law of Nature: since it’s ubiquitous, it must be the only possible system.
But there are no financial Laws of Nature for money. In the past, notched sticks served as money. In other non-Western cultures, giant stone disks (rai, a traditional form of money on the island of Yap) and even salt served as money.
In our experience, 1) money is issued by a government or central bank (i.e. a currency), and each of these currencies is the sole form of legal money (legal tender) in the nation-state that issues the currency; 2) each of these currencies is available in physical coins and paper bills and digitally as entries in bank and credit card accounts; 3) our currency is borrowed into existence by the central bank or by fractional reserve lending in private banks, and 4) this currency meets all of the utility traditionally required of money:
1. It is divisible into smaller units, i.e. a dollar is divided into quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies, or it is a small unit (for example, the Japanese yen, which is roughly equivalent to a U.S. penny).
2. It is secure, i.e. everyone can’t just print or make their own in unlimited quantities.
3. It is fungible, meaning all the units are interchangeable.
4. It is easily transportable.
5. It has a market value that’s easily discoverable, so buyers and sellers can confidently exchange it for goods and services.
But history informs us that money doesn’t have to be issued by governments,nor does it have to be borrowed into existence by banks, nor does every form of money have to satisfy all five requirements; it’s possible to have multiple forms of money which each serve different purposes.
In other words, our system of money is merely one of many possible systems of money. With the advent of digital cryptocurrencies, the range of monetary systems has expanded greatly.
We tend to look at money as value-neutral and apolitical, but as a social construct, it reflects specific social and political values. As I’ve explained in previous posts, our money is created and distributed at the very top of the wealth-power pyramid.
This feature of our money optimizes the accumulation of wealth and power in the top of the pyramid, and thus our social contract of money guarantees the concentration of wealth and thus rising wealth-power inequality.
To understand why, we need to start with money’s three basic functions.
As a general rule, money is:
1. A store of value (i.e. it serves as a reliable repository of wealth);
2. As means of exchange between buyers and sellers;
3. A tool for recording transactions of credit/debt (i.e. it facilitates recording transactions and keeping track of credits, debts, assets and payments).
Modern-day government-issued currencies perform all three roles. The U.S. dollar, for example, acts as a store of purchasing power, a global means of exchange, and as a tool to keep track of transactions, debts and financial assets.
But in other social constructs, different kinds of money perform different functions.The giant stone disks on Yap (rai) are a store of value, and a means of exchange for high-value items.
But the recording of transactions involving the rai is done in an oral-history ledger: the transfer of ownership of a particular rai is recorded in the community memory, and so the heavy 2-meter-high stone doesn’t have to actually move in physical space to transfer ownership. As a result, a stone rai resting at the bottom of the lagoon is a perfectly functional store of value and means of exchange.
The rai are quarried on another island, and not easily counterfeited. They are not necessarily interchangeable; the value of each one is recorded in the oral record. But since a rai isn’t divisible, or easily transportable, another form of money is used for day-to-day transactions.
The point here is there is no intrinsic reason why the three primary functions of money have to be satisfied by one single currency.
Nor is there any intrinsic reason why one form of money has to be equally tradable for all goods and services. In some cultures, certain forms of money hold symbolic value and are used solely for transactions of symbolic import, for example, as a wedding dowry.
We assume money has been stripped clean of symbolic or moral value, that it has no connection to anything but its current market value. Yet once again, there is no intrinsic reason why money must be stripped of symbolic or moral value. That our money has no symbolic or moral value is entirely a result of our specific social construct.
In cultures with forms of money that aren’t issued by a government, social consensus defines what serves as money and what functions it fulfills.
Which Brings us to Bitcoin
Bitcoin's limitations are well-known: the blockchain/mining consumes vast quantities of electricity, and bitcoin can't be scaled to replace all the credit card transactions in the world. But as noted above, every type of money does not need to perform all the functions of money.
Thus some commentators anticipate bitcoin being used for large, infrequent transfers rather than the purchase of consumer goods and services. Other cryptocurrencies may arise to fill that role.
I recently paid translators in South America with bitcoin. The transaction fee was about $4.50. Clearly, bitcoin functions as a means of exchange.
I made a few dollars of profit using bitcoin for transactions like this last year and I paid income taxes on those modest gains. Clearly, bitcoin is a legal financial instrument that the federal government accepts as the source of taxable capital gains.
For those who don't know the situation in Venezuela, its government has destroyed the value of the nation's currency, the bolivar, which traded at roughly 10 to 1 US dollar as recently as late 2012, when bitcoin was roughly $10.
The black market exchange is now over 98,000 bolivars to the US dollar, and one bitcoin is now worth over 1 billion bolivars. Clearly, bitcoin has acted as a store of value. The resident of Venezuela who traded 100 bolivars for $10 and traded the $10 for one bitcoin how has 1 billion bolivars or $13,000 US dollars.
Clearly, bitcoin is a means of exchange, a legal form of capital that accrues taxable capital gains and it's a store of value. So by the conventional definition of money, bitcoin is money. It's our right to think it a nonsensical form of money, just as it's our right to mock the stone rai, and deride the packages of ramen noodles that serve as money in prisons. But our mockery doesn't change the functionality of these forms of money.
No doubt the conventional wisdom in Venezuela dismissed the functionality of bitcoin in late 2012, just as the conventional wisdom continues to dismiss bitcoin's functionality as money. So who was right, and who was wrong? The believer in the status quo who held onto his 100 bolivars as a means of exchange and store of value , or the independent who traded bolivars for bitcoin?
Good ideas don't require force. That describes the Internet, mobile telephony and cryptocurrencies. Bad ideas require force: that describes the Venezuelan government's management of its currency, and the central bank/central state form of money that dominates the global economy.
This essay was drawn from my new book, Money and Work Unchained, which I'm offering to my readers at a 25% discount ($7.45 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition) through Saturday, December 9, after which the price goes up to retail ($9.95 and $20).
Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Inna L. ($50), for your marvelously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A Radical Critique of Universal Basic Income

This critique reveals the unintended consequences of UBI.
Readers have been asking me what I thought of Universal Basic Income (UBI) as the solution to the systemic problem of jobs being replaced by automation.To answer this question, I realized I had to start by taking a fresh look at work and its role in human life and society. And since UBI is fundamentally a distribution of money, I also needed to take a fresh look at our system of money.
That led to a radical critique of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and an outline for a much more sustainable and just system of money and work than we have now. To adequately explore these critical topics, I ended up writing a 50,000 word book, Money and Work Unchained.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is increasingly being held up as the solution to automation's displacement of human labor. UBI combines two powerful incentives: self-interest (who couldn't use an extra $1,000 per month) and an idealistic commitment to guaranteeing everyone material security and reducing the rising income inequality that threatens our social contract--a topic I've addressed many times over the past decade.
UBI's goals--guaranteeing material security and reducing income inequality--are not just worthy; they are essential. The question then becomes: how do we achieve these goals?
The conventional critiques of UBI focus on the practicalities of funding such a substantial universal entitlement. Where will the trillions of extra dollars required come from? Can we pay for UBI by "taxing the robots" or borrowing/ printing more currency?
But a radical critique must go much, much further, and ask: is UBI the best that we can do? If we provide the basics of material security--the bottom level of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs--what about all the higher needs for positive social roles, meaningful work, and the opportunity to build capital?
This critique reveals the unintended consequences of UBI: rather than deliver a Utopia, UBI institutionalizes serfdom and a two-class neofeudalism in which the bottom 95% scrape by on UBI while the top 5% hoard what every human wants and needs: positive social roles in our community, meaningful work that makes us feel needed, and the opportunity to build capital in all its manifestations.
UBI is the last gasp of a broken, dying system, a "solution" that institutionalizes all the injustices of serfdom under the guise of aiding those left behind by automation. We can do better--we must do better--and I lay out how to do so in this book.
A radical critique must also examine the widely accepted assumption that automation will destroy most jobs. Is this assumption valid? It turns out this assumption rests on a completely false understanding of the nature of work, the economics of automation and the presumed stability of an unsustainable global economy.
I'm offering Money and Work Unchained to my readers at a 25% discount ($7.45 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition) through Saturday, December 9, after which the price goes up to retail ($9.95 and $20).


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Jeffrey N. ($50), for your marvelously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

Read more...

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