The New Republic

Jonathan Cohn, "Auto Destruct", The New Republic, 12.31.2008, 15-16.

Even though constantly rising wages helped create what's known as a wage-price spiral, or repeating cycle of inflation, the net effect still seemed to be positive. Between the 1940s and '70s, real wages - that is, wages adjusted for inflation - for the typical American worker doubled. As Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, concluded, 'everything we know about unions says that their new power was a major factor in the creation of a middle-class society.
There's a broad consensus that, over the last 30 years, real wages for the typical American worker have stagnated - in contrast to the 30 years before that, when unions thrived and real wages doubled. As an exercise, I asked Dean Baker, from the Center for Economic Policy Research, to calculate informally where wages for the typical working-age American would be if they'd continued to rise as they had done before the 1970s, while the unions were strong and helping to raise living standards for everybody. He determined that somebody between 45 and 55 years old, roughly the average UAW age today, would be making about $25 per hour - which is very close to the $28 per hour the typical UAW member makes.
Health benefits, and retiree health benefits in particular, became the most glaring problem, since foreign competitors didn't have similar burdens. Workers in the factories these companies maintained abroad benefited from national health insurance programs. Workers in the plants these companies established here didn't have that advantage.
But, if the 2007 UAW agreement represented a lifeline for the industry as a whole, it also represented a death knell for the old way of doing things. No longer would the auto industry guarantee its factory workers a middle-class way of life, because it simply wasn't possible for a company to accomplish that on its own. The global economy had rendered the Treaty of Detroit null and void - and pushed the ambitions of Flint's sit-downers farther out of reach.


The Economist

"Dumb money and dull diligence", The Economist, 12.20.2008

"Bernard Madoff thrived in an era of cheap credit, when greed and gullibility became far more powerful than fear and suspicion." [17]
[too much trust or too little]

"Bavarian baksheesh", The Economist, 12.20.2008

About $805m was paid to foreign officials to help Siemens win contracts over about six years after the firm's American listing, according to the DOJ. And the brazenness of the firm's bribe-paying points to a rotten corporate culture pervasive across Germany at the time. 'The great majority of companies operating in the international market were well aware that German law - and the law of most OECD countries - allowed foreign bribery and even subsidised this,' says Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group. [112]

"The beauty of bubbles", The Economist, 12.20.2008

Sceptics have an obvious rejoinder to the observation that bubbles can leave behind useful physical assets: those assets, they say, would eventually have been built anyway, and on better terms. They have a point. The main routes built as a result of the railway mania would surely have come about with or without the frenzy of the 1840s, and been part of a more rationally planned national network.
Robert Stephenson, son of George and one of the principal figures behind the expansion of Britain's railways, reckoned that a network that was just as productive could have been built for a third less than the actual cost. Similar calculations would probably apply to the investment in fibre-optic cables better suited to rising demand. For a bubble to have a genuinely valuable lasting effect, it must do something more than construct useful things wastefully. There are at least two ways in which it can do this.
The first relates to spillover effects. Bubbles, when they burst, are ruinous to direct investors but can be helpful to other parts of the economy. The railway boom made Britain's economy more productive by reducing transport costs. ...
The second thing that a bubble can do is to make a more profound impression on the public mind than a more conservative period of economic development can manage. The 1920s land boom implanted the idea of Florida as a glamorous holiday destination that has lasted to this day. [117]

"Con of the century", The Economist, 12.20.2008

Mr. Madoff's investment business was overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), but it failed to carry out any examinations despite receiving complaints from investors and rivals since as long ago as the late 1990s. As a Wall Street fixture, Mr. Madoff was close to several SEC officials. His niece, the firm's compliance lawyer, even married a former member of the team that had inspected the market making division's books in 2003 - though there is no evidence of impropriety. [120]

"Why we are, as we are", The Economist, 12.20.2008

The relative nature of status explains the paradox observed in 1974 by an economist called Richard Easterlin that, while rich people are happier than poor people within a country, average happiness does not increase as that country gets richer. This has been disputed recently. But if it withstands scrutiny it means the free-market argument - that because economic growth makes everybody better off, it does not matter that some are more better off than others - does not stand up, at least if 'better off' is measured in terms of happiness. What actually matters, Darwinism suggests, is that a free society allows people to rise through the hierarchy by their own efforts: the American dream, if you like. [128]
When researchers ask people whether they would rather be relatively richer than their peers even if that means they are absolutely worse off, the answer is yes. (Would you rather earn $100,000 when all your friends earn $50,000, or $150,000 when everybody else earns $300,000?) The reason socialism does not work in practice is that this is not a question that most people ask themselves. What they ask is how to earn $300k when all around them people are earning $50k.
A Darwinian analysis does, however, support one argument frequently made by the left and pooh-poohed by the right. This is that poverty is relative. The starkest demonstration of this, discovered by Richard Wilkinson of Nottingham University, in England, is that once economic growth has lifted a country out of penury, its inhabitants are likely to live longer, healthier lives if there are not huge differences between their incomes. This means that poorer countries with low income-variation can outscore richer ones with high variation. [128]


The Economist

"Wall Street's annus horribilis", The Economist, 12.13.2008, 85.

Convinced that the era of big, highly geared bets is over, Morgan Stanley has shrunk its balance-sheet from $1.3t to a shade over $750b. It expects to earn a return on equity of three to five percentage points less as a result of lower leverage. Retail banking, once mocked as deathly dull at the white-shoe firm, will become its 'fourth leg'. Having come so close to failing, Morgan is going all out to win back clients who fled. It says most have returned.

This marks a stunning about-turn, for John Mack, Morgan's chief executive, who must feel a bit like the Grand Old Duke of York. On returning to run the firm in 2005, after the ejection of the risk-averse Philip Purcell, he declared that it was under-leveraged and needed to push into mortgages, proprietary trading and private equity. These businesses are not being dramatically 'reshaped', ie, shrunk.


New York Magazine

Steve Fishman, "Burning Down His House", New York Magazine, 12.08.2008, 32-33.

Leverage was the way to supercharge revenues. At one point, it was said that Lehman had borrowed $32 for every $1 in its coffers. By comparison, at Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, the ratio was roughly 25 to one. For all of the firms, a small dip in the value of collateral could prove calamitous.

Citigroup and Merrill Lynch would both announce significant first-quarter losses - Merrill at $1.97b, Citigroup at $5.1b. Lehman coolly posted a profit of $489m. It was smaller than usual and included some 'hard-to-repeat gains,' as The Wall Street Journal put it. Still, it was Lehman's 55th consecutive profitable quarter.

One hedge-fund owner, David Einhorn, later asserted that Lehman had overvalued important assets, in effect fudging its books. In fact, many of Lehman's losses were 'backloaded', already lurking on its books.


Donella H. Meadows

Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing, December 3, 2008.

There is an integrity or wholeness about a system and an active set of mechanisms to maintain that integrity. Systems can change, adapt, respond to events, seeks goals, mend injuries, and attend to their own survival in lifelike ways, although they may contain or consist of nonliving things. Systems can be self-organizing, and often are self-repairing over at least some range of disruptions. They are resilient, and many of them are evolutionary. Out of one system other completely new, never-before-imagined systems can arise. [12]

A system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitutions of its elements - as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact. [16]

The least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinant of the system's behavior. Interconnections are also critically important. Changing relationship usually changes system behavior. The elements, the parts of the system we are most likely to notice, are often (not always) least important in defining the unique characteristics of the system - unless changing an element also results in changing relationships or purpose. [17]

System thinkers see the world as a collection of stocks along with the mechanisms for regulating levels in the stocks by manipulating flows.
That means system thinkers see the world as a collection of 'feedback processes.' [25]

The flows into or out of the stock are adjusted because of changes in the size of the stock itself. Whoever or whatever is monitoring the stock's level begins a corrective processes, adjusting rates of inflow or outflow (or both) and so changing the stock's level. The stock level feeds back through a chain of signals and actions to control itself. [26]

The information delivered by a feedback loop can only affect future behavior; it can't deliver the information, and so can't have an impact fast enough to correct behavior that drove the current feedback. A person in the system who makes a decision based on the feedback can't change the behavior of the system that drove the current feedback; the decision he or she makes will affect only future behavior. [39]

When one loop dominates another, it has a stronger impact on behavior. Because systems often have several competing feedback loops operating simultaneously, those loops that dominate the system will determine the behavior. [44]

Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability. It is likely to come up with whole new structures, whole new ways of doing things. It requires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder. These conditions that encourage self-organization often can be scary for individuals and threatening to power structures. [80]

Hierarchical systems are partially decomposable. They can be taken apart and the subsystems with their especially dense information links can function, at least partially, as systems in their own right. When hierarchies break down, they usually split along their subsystem boundaries. [83]

To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system - there must be enough central control to achieve coordinated toward the large-system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organizing. [85]

Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers of the hierarchy is to serve the purposes of the lower layers. [85]

You can't navigate well in an interconnected, feedback-dominated world unless you take your eyes off short-term events and look for long-term behavior and structure; unless you are aware of false boundaries and bounded rationality; unless you take into account limiting factors, nonlinearities and delays. You are likely to mistreat, misdesign, or misread systems if you don't respect their properties of resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy. [87]

Structure determines what behaviors are latent in the system. A goal-seeking balancing feedback loop approaches or holds a dynamic equilibrium. A reinforcing feedback loop generates exponential growth. The two of them linked together are capable of growth, decay, or equilibrium. If they also contain delays, they may produce oscillations. If they work in periodic, rapid bursts, they may produce even more surprising behaviors. [89]

There is no single, legitimate boundary to draw around a system. We have to invent boundaries for clarity and sanity; and boundaries can produce problems when we forget that we've artificially created them. [97]

Growth itself depletes or enhances limits and therefore changes what is limiting. The interplay between a growing plant and the soil, a growing company and its market, a growing economy and its resources base, is dynamic. [102]

We do our best to further our own nearby interests in a rational way, but we can take into account only what we know. We don't know what others are planning to do, until they do it. We rarely see the full range of possibilities before us. We often don't foresee (or choose to ignore) the impacts of our actions on the whole system. So instead of finding a long-term optimum, we discover within our limited purview a choice we can live with for now, and we stick to it, changing our behavior only when forced to. [106]

There are three ways to avoid the tragedy of the commons.
* Educate and exhort. Help people to see the consequences of unrestrained use of the commons. Appeal to their morality. Persuade them to be temperate. Threaten transgressors with social disapproval or eternal hellfire.
* Privatize the commons. Divide it up, so that each person reaps the consequences of his or her own actions. If some people lack the self-control to stay below the carrying capacity of their own private resource, those people will harm only themselves and not others.
* Regulate the commons. Garrett Hardin calls this option, bluntly, 'mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.' Regulation can take many forms, from outright bans on certain behaviors to quotas, permits, taxes, incentives. To be effective, regulation must be enforced by policing and penalties. [119]

Regulation makes an indirect feedback link from the condition of the resource through regulators to users. For this feedback to work, the regulators must have the expertise to monitor and interpret correctly the condition of the commons, they must have effective means of deterrence, and they must have the good of the whole community at heart. (They cannot be uninformed or weak or corrupt.) [119]

[Actually, all three different approaches require monitoring, enforcement and goodwill, but of different sorts.]

Most people comply with regulatory systems most of the time, as long as they are mutually agreed upon and their purpose is understood. But all regulatory systems must use police power and penalties for the occasional noncooperator. [121]

The competitive exclusion principle: the more the winner wins, the more he, she, or it can win in the future. If the winning takes place in a limited environment, such that everything the winner wins is extracted from the losers, the losers are gradually bankrupted, or forced out, or starved. [127]

Species and companies sometimes escape competitive exclusion by diversifying. ... Diversification is not guaranteed, however, especially if the monopolizing firm (or species) has the power to crush all offshoots, or buy them up, or deprive them of the resources the need to stay alive. Diversification doesn't work as a strategy for the poor. [129]

There are many devices to break the loop of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer: tax laws written (unbeatably) to tax the rich at higher rates than the poor; charity; public welfare; labor unions; universal and equal health care and education; taxation on inheritance (a way of starting the game over with each new generation). Most industrial societies have some combination of checks like these on the workings of the success-to-the-successful trap, in order to keep everyone in the game. Gift-giving cultures redistribute wealth through potlatches and other ceremonies that increase the social standing of the gift giver.
These equalizing mechanisms may derive from simple morality, or they may come from the practical understanding that losers, if they are unable to get out of the game of success to the successful, and if they have no hope of winning, could get frustrated enough to destroy the playing field. [130]

You have the problem of wrong goals when you find something stupid happening 'because it's the rule.' You have the problem of rule beating when you find something stupid happening because it's the way around the rule. Both of these system perversions can be going on at the same time with regard to the same rule. [141]

No one would think of using an America's Cup yacht for any purpose other than racing within the rules. The boats are so optimized around the present rules that they have lost all resilience. Any change in the rules would render them useless. [141]

[Evolved fragility]

You can often stabilize a system by increasing the capacity of a buffer. But if a buffer is too big, the system gets inflexible. It reacts too slowly. And big buffers of some sorts, such a water reservoirs or inventories, cost a lot to build or maintain. [150]

Physical structure is crucial in a system, but is rarely a leverage point because changing it is rarely quick or simple. The leverage point is in proper design in the first place. After the structure is built, the leverage is in understanding its limitations and bottlenecks, using it with maximum efficiency, and refraining from fluctuations or expansions that strain its capacity. [151]

Delays that are too long cause damped, sustained, or exploding oscillations, depending on how much too long. Overlong delays in a system with a threshold, a danger point, a range past which irreversible damage can occur, cause overshoot and collapse. [152]

Strengthening and clarifying market signals, such as full-cost accounting, don't get far these days, because of the weakening of another set of balancing feedback loops - those of democracy. This great system was invented to put self-correcting feedback between the people and their government. The people, informed about what their elected representatives do, respond by voting those representatives in or out of office. The process depends on the free, full, unbiased flow of information back and forth between electorate and leaders. Billions of dollars are spent to limit and bias and dominate that flow of clear information. Give the people who want to distort market-price signals the power to influence government leaders, allow the distributors of information to be self-interested partners, and none of the necessary balancing feedback work well. Both market and democracy erode. [154]

[Commonwealth is stock. Democracy is balancing feedback loop. Market is reinforcing feedback loop.]

Reinforcing feedback loops are sources of growth, explosion, erosion, and collapse in systems. A system with an unchecked reinforcing loop ultimately will destroy itself. [155]

Reducing the gain around a reinforcing loop - slowing the growth - is usually a more powerful leverage point in systems than strengthening balancing loops, and far more preferable than letting the reinforcing loop run. [156]

[There's the rub. Slow growth and the system itself becomes competitively disadvantageous]

There are many reinforcing feedback loops in society that reward the winners of a competition with the resources to win even bigger next time - the 'success to the successful' trap. Rich people collect interest; poor people pay it. Rich people pay accountants and lean on politicians to reduce their taxes; poor people can't. Rich people give their kids inheritances and good educations. Antipoverty programs are weak balancing loops that try to counter these strong reinforcing ones. It would be much more effective to weaken the reinforcing loops. That's what progressive income tax, inheritance tax, and universal high-quality public education programs are meant to do. If the wealthy can influence government to weaken, rather than strengthen, those measures, then the government itself shifts from a balancing structure to one that reinforces success to the successful! [156]

There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions. That's why there are so man missing feedback loops - and why compelling feedback is so often popular with the masses, unpopular with the powers that be, and effective, if you can get the powers that be to permit it to happen (or go around them and make it happen anyway). [157]

In a strict systems sense, there is no long-term, short-term distinction. Phenomena at different time-scales are nested within each other. Actions taken now have some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come. We experience now the consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago. The coupling between very fast processes and very slow ones are sometimes strong, sometimes weak. When the slow ones dominate, nothing seems to be happening; when the fast ones take over, things happen with breathtaking speed. Systems are always coupling and uncoupling the large and the small, the fast and the slow. [183]


The New Yorker

John Cassidy, "Anatomy of a Meltdown: Ben Bernanke and the financial crisis", The New Yorker, 12.01.2008, 53-61.

As house prices soared, many Americans took out home-equity loans to finance their spending. The personal savings rate dipped below zero, and the trade deficit, which the United States financed by borrowing heavily from abroad, expanded greatly. Some experts warned that the economy was on an unsustainable course; Bernanke disagreed. In a much discussed speech in March, 2005, he argued that the main source of imbalance in the global economy was not excess spending at home but, rather, excess saving in China and other developing countries, where consumption was artificially low. Lax American policy was helping to mop up a 'global savings glut.'

'Bernanke provided the intellectual justification for the Fed's hands-off approach to asset bubbles,' Stephen S. Roach, the chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, who was among the economists urging the Fed to adjust its policy, told me. 'He also played a key role in the development of the 'global savings glut' theory, which the Fed used as a very convenient excuse to say we are doing the world a big favor in maintaining demand. In retrospect, we didn't have a global savings glut - we had an American consumption glut. In both of those cases, Bernanke was complicit in massive policy blunders on the part of the Fed.'
In May, 2006, Bernanke rejected calls for direct regulation of hedge funds, saying that such a move would 'stifle innovation.' The following month, in a speech on bank supervision, he expressed support for allowing banks, rather than government officials, to determine how much risk they could take on, using complicated mathematical models of their own devision - a policy that had been in place for a number of years. 'The ongoing work on this framework has already led large, complex banking organizations to improve their systems for identifying, measuring and managing their risks,' Bernanke said.

It is now evident that self-regulation failed. By extending mortgages to unqualified lenders and accumulating large inventories of subprime securities, banks and other financial institutions took on enormous risks, often without realizing. Their mathematical models failed to alert them to potential perils. Regulators - including successive Fed chairmen - failed, too.
One of the supposed advantages of securitizing mortgages was that it allowed the risk of homeowners' defaulting on their mortgages to be transferred from banks to investors. However, as the market for mortgage securities deteriorated, many banks ended up accumulating big inventories of these assets, some of which they parked in off-balance-sheet vehicles called conduits. 'We knew that banks were creating conduits,' Don Kohn, the Fed's vice-chairman, told me. 'I don't think we could have recognized the extent to which that could come back onto the banks' balance sheets when confidence in the underlying securities - the subprime loans - began to erode.
A senior Fed official recalled, 'The problem wasn't the size of Bear Stearns - it wasn't the fact that some creditors would have borne losses. The problem was - people use the term 'too interconnected to fail.' That's not totally accurate, but it's close enough.' In the repot market, for example, Bear Stearns had borrowed heavily from money-market mutual funds. 'If Bear had failed,' the senior official went on, 'all these money-market mutual funds, instead of getting their money back on Monday morning, would have found themselves with all kinds of illiquid collateral, including CDOs and God knows what else. It would have caused a run on the entire market. That, in turn, would have made it impossible for other investment banks to fund themselves.
Bernanke couldn't say so publicly, but he agreed with some of the critics. For years, the Fed had warned that Fannie and Freddi were squeezing out competitors and engaging in risky mortgage lending practices. Bernanke would have liked to combine a rescue package with extensive reforms, but he realized that an overhaul of the companies was not politically feasible. Despite their financial problems, Fannie and Freddi still had many powerful allies in Congress.