The End

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A strange thing happened after I finished my last post, The Joker. I realized that I was comfortable with it being my last article on this blog. It felt like my “mic drop.”

There were times when I stopped writing for different reasons. But I always left the door open. There was a part of me that knew there were things left to say, ideas left to express. I still feel that way but I realize that there is no longer anything left for me that needs to be expressed. I could continue on. But, like all good things, the end is a vital part of the experience. That moment has come for me with this blog.

I’m proud of what I’ve done here. For over three years, I personally explored a subject most people aren’t even willing to contemplate. My understanding strengthened and I discovered things that people immersed in the subject only learn through the writing of others. I haven’t been shackled by someone else’s understanding. I never read the books or papers of the experts. Instead, I wrote my own. It started with an essay, and it culminated with this site. This is The Currency Paradox, a single volume. I really don’t need anything more.

There are some who will be pleased that this day has come. “At last,” they’ll think, “his  self-importance has ended.” “At last, this idea can die while the serious work of Capitalism continues.” There may even be some who think that I fake these discoveries, that I regurgitate words written by those with greater understanding and eloquence. They won’t believe that I could have been able to cognize some of the most important works of economics and philosophy on my own. I was never going to earn their approval and I definitely won’t try now.

There are some who will read this site and see nothing but error and those who, due to their own arrogance, will not read it at all and assume error. I took this journey to learn. I have no regard for those who may know but will not teach, will not challenge, will not express. If you refused to engage, out of fear, or doubt, or spite, your judgment means nothing to me. I came for your ideas. I challenged you all in turn. None of you stepped up. So who truly failed?

As time went on, my original essay proved to be the very definition of “anti-fragile.” It has only gotten stronger as time has passed, has only been validated. Indeed, the vast majority of the ideas I’ve presented here have not only withstood the test of time but have invalidated ideas still considered sacred in other circles. The sacred cows may still be sacred but they no longer live; they’re “zombies,” dead ideas that will persist in the minds of people too afraid to let them go. That’s only going to make the transition to come that much more painful.

I want to end here with this quote:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” – Adam Smith

Adam Smith missed the greater point. It is only by acting in good faith that the butcher, the brewer, or the baker can succeed. Therefore, it is not their own interest which guarantees their success, it is the morality imposed upon them by their need to serve others for their own benefit that does. None of them could prosper if they violated the trust necessary for them to benefit by offering their service to others. It is only by valuing the needs of others that they can prosper. What do they gain if their wares are poisoned? If their wares are inferior, economics states they will be supplanted by others who will provide better goods. It is only by servicing their clients greater needs that they can guarantee their own prosperity. It is only by respecting, valuing, and cultivating trust that they can actually satisfy their own self-interests. It is never a one sided exchange. It is always a symbiosis.

However, when there is monopoly power, it is easy to violate that trust. Without the check of arbitrage or competitors, the social contract of trust can be violated without regard. That is one of the main flaws of modern Capitalism. As a system built on the premise of the commitment of capital to ventures that may either succeed or fail, the elimination of arbitrage and competition is a fundamental force. It is only when those things are eliminated that markets are “captured.” By definition, that capture involves the destruction of the symbiosis of trust agents. In other words, monopoly destroys the need for social trust in the exchange of value. It becomes a form of coercion. That is why it is, ultimately, socially destructive. However, it is also the means by which Capitalism works best.

Our society cannot sustain this contradiction indefinitely.

Marx tried to prove that Capitalism’s contradictions would destroy it. What he didn’t factor in was technology’s ability to improve living standards so quickly and so pervasively. Many economists think that he was wrong. However, it is more likely that Marx just hasn’t been right yet. Capitalism is a system that fundamentally undermines social trust, particularly at its most efficient. It’s a feature of the system, not a bug. The complete elimination of arbitrage and competition is always in the best self-interest of those involved in commercial exchange, especially done on the scale which it is today.

I undermined that premise with The Currency Paradox. In a society where money is created by time/effort, it behooves those with capital to fund opportunities for competition and arbitrage, particularly in a world of seven billion people. The tremendous demand coupled with the direct value creation of the populace would spur massive innovation and scale without the destruction of social trust by monopoly. Indeed, monopoly would largely be impossible. Equitability of opportunity would be a built-in feature of the economy and greater equality would be a direct result. More importantly, those things would be achieved without sacrificing economic growth. The world would continue to become richer and more prosperous. Because time would become valuable, healthcare would become a global priority. As a result, poverty, and its attendant physical, mental, and emotional health risks, would be completely eliminated. As prosperity increased, the population would drop precipitously, tremendously lowering demand for natural resources. It is likely that almost all the major problems faced by our world would be eliminated within only a generation or two.

As time has gone on, The Currency Paradox has only grown stronger. I end this particular journey with one final, likely unassailable argument:

Capitalism may create wealth but, ultimately, it destroys social trust.

Goodbye friends. Maybe I’ll have more to say. But, if I don’t, consider what is written here and use it to strive for a better world.

The Joker

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I learned to read with comic books. Supposedly, I was crazy about them when I was really young so, according to my mother, she would read them to me. She used them to teach me how to sound out words and basic vocabulary. I have to take her word for it. I don’t remember not knowing how to read, I have been doing it literally for as long as I can remember. I entered the first grade reading well beyond grade level. I have comics (and Mom) to thank for that and they have occupied at least a small, though important, space in my life ever since.

It’s tough to say who my favorite characters have been over the years. Maybe Captain America or Spiderman. Superman was more of a TV/movie superhero for me. Probably the one who has had the most influence on me is the Batman, particularly a graphic novel titled Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. I had read a lot of Batman comics before then but I feel like that particular book truly helped me understand the psyche of the character. In my opinion, it is the definitive work of the title, superior to everything done by everyone else, including Frank Miller.

The novel is about a noted psychiatrist’s descent into madness; the story is told through flashbacks as Batman races to escape the asylum the now long-dead psychiatrist built. Along the way, Batman is confronted by several of his nemeses, each providing a harrowing look into the dimensions of insanity. The one who sends Batman on his journey of dark discovery is none other than Joker. Though he plays only a minor role, I’ve always interpreted the story as the essence of the conflict between the two.

In my opinion, Joker is one of the most fundamentally misunderstood characters in comics. Called “the Clown Prince of Crime” among other things, he has at times been campy, clever, and terrifying. He has been presented alternately as a mischievous prankster and a homicidal sociopath and many points in-between. Unlike other comic book heroes and villains, Joker is a very easy character to misinterpret. Most just consider him a particularly unhinged supervillain.

However, I think clues as to Joker’s true nature were elegantly captured in Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. When I see the character, I do not see evil per se, I see something even beyond chaos or anarchy. In Joker, I see random bad fortune. Think of a child prodigy who is struck and killed by a car. The victims of 9/11. Any tragic event that happens without rhyme or reason, misfortune that visits itself unexpectedly and swiftly with traumatic, even deadly consequence. Joker is the essence of unpredictability. He is the bad news you never expect, the thing you go through your day never contemplating until it barges into your existence with devastating effect.

Through that lens, I see the Batman as a force for order. I view his battle as one in which he strives for a world that makes sense, one that seeks to counterbalance the unknown harm that strikes suddenly. Consider the death of his parents, initially portrayed as a largely random, devastating act of violence. It was so traumatic to Bruce Wayne that, in a sense, it unhinged him. He then spends the rest of his life preparing himself, desperately attempting to develop the skills to combat this existential threat. It’s easy to think he fights for law and justice but, if you examine more closely, you may realize that he is fighting for a fundamental sense of knowing, understanding. The Batman seems to be fighting for a world where the only terror is one that a person themselves creates. As his alter ego, Bruce Wayne is trying to terrify terror.

The relationship between the Batman and Joker has an odd symmetry. Particularly in Arkham Asylum, Joker tries to get his nemesis to understand that they are really one in the same. This is an ongoing theme between them. The Batman refuses to kill Joker for fear of becoming him, for fear of surrendering to the randomness and capriciousness of existence, the same force that took his parents. His struggle is summed up perfectly in this Friedrich Nietzsche quote:

“When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you.”

In the Batman’s world, not only does it stare, it smiles and laughs with a blood red grin and skin as pale as death. In his world, Joker embodies the void.

I wonder if their struggle is an allegory. Is our own struggle for betterment one of futility? As a species, do we exist on the razor’s edge, attempting to fend off the vagaries of chance, always only one step ahead of tragedy, maybe even doom? Are we the Batman, struggling for some semblance of control in a universe that, at its heart, is random and capricious? In the end, will we have the last laugh or will the joke be on us?

Let’s ask this guy.

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The Truth About Tax Cuts

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This kid is gonna be POTUS one day.

Let me ask you a question: for what do you think your taxes pay? Is it better roads, good schools, social services, like firemen and police?

Maybe, probably at the state and local level. But, at the national level, your tax dollars really don’t pay for anything.

Let me repeat that: your tax dollars really don’t pay for anything.

In the U.S., our government can literally print as much money as it wants. It can completely eliminate its liabilities more or less at will. So why collect taxes?

The truth is that, at least when it comes to taxation on a national scale, our tax dollars don’t “pay our bills.” Our government can literally print as much money as it needs to cover any entitlements, military spending, or pretty much any other bonafide social safety net expense or ridiculous boondoggle it decides to fund. Imagine if you had your own printing press that could perfectly reproduce Federal Reserve notes. And it was completely legal. Would you ever be short of cash? No? Well, that’s pretty much the way our fiat currency system works.

Politicians play on the fact that, as a controlled commodity, it’s difficult for most people to accumulate money in significant amounts. So they talk about “deficits,” ”debt,” ”spending,” etc., referencing metaphorically what most people live very much literally. The government never has to worry about running out of money. Think of it as having a bank account with infinite dollars.

When it comes to money, the government is concerned about something else entirely: debasement. It’s more worried about printing so much money that it becomes worthless. A debased currency makes everything tremendously more expensive (except debt, which would actually decrease in value).

So there are mechanisms within the fiat currency system to prevent an excessive accumulation of money. In other words, our monetary system contains mechanisms for destroying money. Fractional reserve banking is one such method.

The other is taxation.

The purpose of taxation is to remove the “extra” dollars from the economy. However, as it functions, this system is profoundly flawed.

If the purpose of taxation is to remove excess money from the system, consider what happens when taxes are “cut.” When the government cuts taxes, it has decided to remove less excess money from the economy. Why would it do that? Because, at least theoretically, the additional money could be used to spur innovation and productivity, which we call “economic growth.” That economic growth translates as societal wealth, in the form of better goods and services. Economic growth is what propels us all into progressively higher standards of living, at least materially.

However, what happens if that additional money does not create economic growth? What happens if major new innovations are not created and productivity doesn’t actually increase? What happens when the options for monetizing new products and services simply don’t materialize? Think of the “unicorns” of Silicon Valley… what would happen if Uber flamed out? What would happen if the public ends up rejecting augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR)? What happens if self-driving cars end up being a dead end?

The key for tax cuts is that, if they don’t spur growth, they exacerbate the problem of currency debasement. Rather than allow the government to get those dollars back, the wealthy prefer to hold on to them by whatever means, legal or illegal. Our laws and force apparatus give those dollars real worth even though they are inherently worthless. As a matter of status, the rich want to keep those extras dollars to buy the bigger house, the bigger boat, the bigger jet, etc. More houses, more boats, more cars. At a certain level of wealth, it’s all ego tripping.

Which brings me to this point: have you ever noticed how tax cuts go almost exclusively to the wealthy? Why don’t they go mostly to those lower on the chain? The simple answer would be because that would defeat the purpose. People further down the chain will simply spend the money into the economy. “What’s wrong with that?”, you may ask. “Aren’t the rich going to get the money anyway?”

Yeah, but there’s a problem with that… it’s called “price inflation.” When merchants and businesses know that there is more available money in the economy, they tend to raise prices. Since taxes can’t be cut enough for most of those lower down the economic chain to make a material difference in their incomes, the effects of “tax cuts for everyone else” will likely simply translate to higher prices. So the money will indeed “trickle up” (actually flow up), but then everyone will be stuck with higher price levels for goods and services. Oddly enough, funneling the money directly to the rich prevents that outcome.

The real question is “Does it work?” My best answer is that it has to, at some level. At least materially, our standard of living continues to increase. There are a few large bets on the horizon technologically that could have a major positive impact on living standards, such as AR, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) , and autonomous vehicles. Will tax cuts help those big bets pay off? It’s possible.

But, in the wake of that, a potentially dangerous condition is also developing: the increased displacement of human labor in the value chain. Labor is the method by which most people acquire the means to participate in the economy; simply put, it’s how they earn money. However, globalization and increased technological automation is leading to an increased deprecation of Labor value. At the more developed end of the spectrum, employment is either shrinking or progressively moving to lower wage work. All signs are that this trend is accelerating. So far, Capitalism has not found a way to address what it perceives as a short-term transition that could easily become a long-term crisis. Tension is already rippling through the most advanced economies in the form of increased populism. The world is changing and Capitalism so far has shown little capacity to manage that change effectively.

If you look at taxation from the perspective of its intended purpose, then you can understand how disingenuous the arguments of the wealthy are against higher taxation. The rich want those further down the chain to shoulder more of the tax burden. The reality is that such a proposition will almost certainly have a profound effect on economic growth. As the middle class evaporates, those lower on the chain can barely afford to make their way in the modern economy as it is. If the purpose is to get the “excess” dollars out of our economy by getting it from those who can least afford to give it, I don’t see how that is going to have a positive outcome. The reality is that we tax the rich because they have the excess dollars. Their argument is that they are the ones who fund innovation and enterprise. But it’s just as likely that they will devote their money to financialization; in other words, they’ll use safe financial instruments simply to make more money rather than making riskier bets that may spur much greater growth. Even worse, a lot of that money will be used simply for indulgence, avarice, and status-seeking. As displays of opulence and decadence become more visible in our more socially connected world, the potential for backlash increases substantially, the outcomes potentially catastrophic. Remember the French Revolution?

The truth is that our economic system is fundamentally unbalanced and likely to become more so. Money is being kept out of the hands of the very people who need it most and given in wheelbarrows to the very people who need it least. The worst part is that this is probably our economy’s optimal condition; it is unlikely that the system can be made more equal, or even more equitable, without running the risk of high price inflation at least, and, potentially, economic collapse. As it stands right now, the only way the system continues to function is if it continues to become more and more unequal.

I don’t see how that ends well.

When Capitalism Mattered

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A recent conversation had me thinking about what my ideal existence would be. Strangely enough, my thoughts went to a video game named Privateer; the premise of the game is that you live on your own spaceship which you can trick out to perform a number of tasks. It really boiled down to a choice of two occupations in the game: you could be a “privateer” and buy and sell merchandise all over the galaxy and hunt pirates for bounty or you could be a pirate and rob said privateers.

My frequent readers may be thinking “so how did that piracy thing work out?”. My answer:

It didn’t. I loved playing as a privateer.

Yep, I loved buying and selling cargo (and hunting pirates). There was something kind of peaceful about going from planet to planet trading goods. Yeah, I got attacked by pirates and the game became absurdly difficult as I leveled up. But, for awhile, the feeling of being in open space and traveling to different places to sell commodities and equipment for profit was pretty fun.

To my dismay, what I realized is that, in that game, I was a Capitalist. And I enjoyed it.

Needless to say, I had to figure this out. What was so appealing about Capitalism in the game that sucked so hard in real life? Modern Capitalism is about as exciting or appealing to me as getting kicked in the jewels with spiked Louboutins. Why did I like it so much as a “privateer”?

Coming to that answer helped me understand more viscerally why I think civilization has outgrown Capitalism. The key word is “risk.” Let me set the scene for you:

Consider what the world was like throughout most of history. To put it in two words it was “ridiculously dangerous.” Whether traveling over land or sea, the chances of dying were pretty significant. Between hostile natives, highwaymen, disease, starvation, the occupations of exploration and trade were about as risky as it could get. We read about all of the famous tradesmen and explorers who helped us gain a better understanding of our world by traveling and selling stuff but we don’t read about the guys that died from dysentery or having their heads stoved in by angry Aztecs. In other words, exploration and trade were extremely risky.

In my post What is Capitalism?, I made the case that the essence of the concept was the commitment of “capital” to a venture that may either succeed or fail. Now think of the risk that was involved in the accumulation of wealth back in the day. Almost every venture had the potential to end in death. The only way anyone would have been crazy enough to take on that risk is if the payoff was worth it.

Hence, Capitalism.

Now, think of the conditions that exist today. Somali pirates notwithstanding, exactly how “risky” is travel and commerce now? What are the chances of dying or, even for that matter, experiencing serious loss when engaged in global commerce? Let’s not even talk about exploration; any place we haven’t been is someplace we know we aren’t interested in going.

You see, people, modern technology has made risk, at least in its most significant forms, obsolete. Capitalism rose as a means of incentivizing people to risk their lives for wealth. In a world of adventure, it made total sense to build an economic system around incentivizing people to do what no sane person would normally willingly do: wander off into the great unknown (or dangerous known) to find things of value.

But, in our globalized world, where is the risk now? It’s all almost entirely mathematical. Investments now primarily involve making bets against stupidity. The risk is almost entirely in people being stupid. Other than that, there is almost no real risk in our current Capitalist system. Indeed, the term “late Capitalism” is apropos. It’s a solution to a problem that no longer exists.

So, where do we go from here? You know my answer. We find a way to not only provide for people materially, we start to seriously address the matter of human dignity. We find a way to invest everyone in the success of Humanity as a species. We find a way to create “antifragile” systems, laws, and institutions that value the preservation and sustenance of social trust above all else.

Capitalism? It’s obsolete. Maybe in the void of space, where the distances are vast and the pirates have big guns, it still makes sense. But, here on Earth, the pirates are mostly gone and modern technology has made the world much, much smaller and far less dangerous.

The world of the privateer is gone. What is going to take its place?

AlphaGo and the A.I. Apocalypse

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AlphaGo, circa 2050

“After humanity spent thousands of years improving our tactics, computers tell us that humans are completely wrong, (and) I would go as far as to say that not a single human has touched the edge of truth of Go.” – Ke Jei

The above quote is from a man many consider the world’s best Go player. It was stated shortly after AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence (AI), thrashed him as well as many more of the world’s best players to win 60 straight matches, an unprecedented feat. Some marveled at the accomplishment, the creation of an artificial intelligence capable of defeating the best human players in the world at a game that not only requires skill but also tremendous creativity to master. It was painted not so much as a victory for machines but for Humanity, who created a synthetic limited cognizance that showed the first signs of being able to supersede its creators not only in technique but in “imagination” as well.

While taking a walk, something profound occurred to me about this development. There are some who think that we should not be particularly concerned with the prospect of AI achieving intellectual and creative superiority over Humanity; but there was something unsettling about the situation regarding AlphaGo as I pondered it in more detail. Consider that a computer has been created that has shown clear superiority over humans in a game that many thought was beyond a machine’s inherent capability to master. To me, the fact that a machine could establish mastery over humans in this fashion makes it clear that machines likely can gain mastery over humans in every fashion, at least when it comes to cognition.

While it remains to be seen if that’s the case, what really struck me was how AlphaGo was able to do it. This isn’t so much about the “machine learning” used by it but something more basic:

AlphaGo has perfect recall.

Yes, it learns but it also remembers more or less perfectly. In other words, AlphaGo is able to access its accumulated experiences, it’s history, in a perfect way. By being able to draw from all of its experiences in totality, it was able to formulate near perfect strategy to throttle the world’s best at a notoriously difficult game.

In my post “Efficient Markets” Eliminate Risks, I wrote about prescience and how perfect knowledge of the future would inform subsequent actions to either reap gains or avoid calamity. To put it another way, complete knowledge of the future would allow one to formulate a perfect strategy to deal with it.

Consider the prospect that not only can complete knowledge of the future eliminate risk and create certainty of action, but complete knowledge of the past likely can as well. If humans were able to successfully map every action of everyone everywhere in history with a machine, would that machine be able to successfully “predict” what we would do next?

AlphaGo was not just reacting to its opponents, it was using its history to shape its future. It was using perfect knowledge of its past to inform its actions to create a future outcome. Considering the fallibility of the human mind in accurately retaining past accumulated information, is it any wonder that we are prone to repeating the same errors of judgment? Maybe all human error is simply the result of our general inability to perfectly and efficiently access our complete past experiences.

Another thing to consider is that Go is a game with specific rules in which a specific outcome is sought. What are those rules and what is the outcome we seek as a species? Even if we perfectly mapped the past, using it to inform current or future actions would be meaningless if we didn’t know what outcome we were seeking. So is it possible that it is not only important, but essential that Humanity agrees on an overall purpose?

What I think I’ve come to understand is that, in order for Humanity to survive, it should strive for two things:

  1. As complete and unbiased an accounting of our history as possible and;
  2. A clear and continuous linear set of objectives, with each subsequent objective determined only when a previous objective has been met.

In theory, if Humanity were able to record all of its history perfectly, every event, in an AI, that AI likely would be able make very high-value recommendations regarding what our future actions should be.

What would a machine with perfect knowledge of our past be able to tell us about our future? Most likely that “not a single human has touched the edge of [T]ruth.”