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Precarious: One Misfortune Away from Insolvency

Precarious: One Misfortune Away from Insolvency

As a result, a significant percentage of households that are considered middle-class are one misfortune away from insolvency.

We can summarize the changes in our economy over the past two generations with one word: precarity, as life for the bottom 90% of American households has become far more precarious over the past 40 years, despite the rising GDP and “wealth” as measured in phantom capital.

This reality is expressed in the portmanteau word precariat, combining proletariat (someone whose livelihood comes from their labor) and precarious: outside of government employment, work has become far more precarious. Where it was still common 40 years ago to work for a company for much or most of one’s career and have a private-sector pension, now private-sector pensions have vanished, replaced by self-managed 401K funds, and private-sector work is characterized by a series of not just job changes but career changes.

The source of one’s livelihood can dry up and blow away almost overnight, and to fill the hole many turn to gig-work with zero benefits that saddles the worker with self-employment taxes (15.3% of all earnings, as the “self-employed” gig worker must pay both the employee and the employer shares of Social Security-Medicare payroll taxes).

This isn’t true self-employment, of course, as true self-employment means the owner-worker can hope to extract the full value of their labor; in contrast, much of the value of the gig work is skimmed off by corporate platforms (Uber et al.). The gig worker is a precariat wage-slave, not a self-employed owner of their own labor and enterprise.

Forty years ago, households with healthcare insurance being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills was unknown. Now this is commonplace. We’re forced to ask, what exactly does “insurance” even mean if our share of the medical bills is so burdensome that we’re forced into insolvency?

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The Decay of Everyday Life

The Decay of Everyday Life

So where does this leave us? We’re on our own.

This month I’ve described what can be summarized as The Decay of Everyday Life: the erosion of the fundamental elements of everyday life: work, opportunity, social mobility, security and well-being, which includes civility, conviviality and a functional, competent social-political order.

In other words, Everyday Life includes far more than the financial statistics of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the stock market, wealth and income. Everyday Life is fundamentally about relationships, agency (i.e. control of one’s life and ownership of one’s work), the fulfillment of life’s purposes (livelihood, family, friends, community and self-growth), leisure time and the experiences of everyday living, both the stressors and the joys.

As I’ve explored in recent posts, the experiential elements of Everyday Life have decayed over the past 40 years: life is more difficult and less secure in ways that are not offset by technological advances. Indeed, the most highly touted technological advances (Internet and mobile phones) have increased the burdens of shadow work and introduced new pathways of addiction and stress that have reduced well-being. Rather than being free, they include structures of control that we have yet to grasp, much less limit.

Here are my recent posts:

Precarious: One Misfortune Away from Insolvency
Squeezed for Decades, America’s Working Class Is Finally Up Against the Wall
Lost in the Vast Wasteland of Social Media
Hikikomori and Lying Flat: When “Making It” Becomes Hopeless
Withdrawing from the Rat Race Is Going Global

The Decay of Everyday Life echoes the title of one of the more important books I’ve long recommendedThe Structures of Everyday Life Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century Volume 1 by Fernand Braudel. The book outlines how changes in the economic structure led to changes in everyday life.

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The Ghetto-ization of American Life

The Ghetto-ization of American Life

Behind the facade of normalization, even high-income lifestyles have been ghetto-ized.

Consider the defining characteristics of a ghetto:

1. The residents can’t afford to live elsewhere.

2. Everything is a rip-off because options are limited and retailers / service providers know residents have no other choice or must go to extraordinary effort to get better quality or a lower price.

3. Nothing works correctly or efficiently. Things break down and aren’t fixed properly. Maintenance is poor to non-existent. Any service requires standing in line or being on hold.

4. Local governance is corrupt and/or incompetent. Residents are viewed as a reliable “vote farm” for the incumbents, even though whatever little they accomplish for the residents doesn’t reduce the sources of immiseration.

5. The locale is unsafe. Cars are routinely broken into, there are security bars over windows and gates to entrances, everything not chained down is stolen–and even what is chained down is stolen.

6. There are few viable businesses and numerous empty storefronts.

7. The built environment is ugly: strip malls, used car lots, etc. There are few safe public spaces or parks that are well maintained and inviting.

8. Most of the commerce is corporate-owned outlets; the money doesn’t stay in the community.

9. Public transport is minimal and constantly being degraded.

10. They get you coming and going: whatever is available is double in cost, effort and time. Very little is convenient or easy. Services are far away.

11. Residents pay high rates of interest on debt.

12. There are few sources of healthy real food. The residents are unhealthy and self-medicate with a panoply of addictions to alcohol, meds, painkillers, gambling, social media, gaming, celebrity worship, etc.

13. Nobody in authority really cares what the residents experience, as they know the residents are atomized and ground down, incapable of cooperating in an organized fashion, and therefore powerless.

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Living on Uneasy Street

Living on Uneasy Street

It’s nice to anticipate sunny weather, but it’s a good idea to carry an umbrella just in case the forecasts prove overly optimistic.

Yes, the market will rally if World War III didn’t start last night. The market will also rally if World War III does start, because the Federal Reserve will surely lower interest rates.

We chuckle uneasily at gallows humor here on Uneasy Street because we’re still required to maintain an upbeat veneer of endlessly cheerful optimism even as we sense that the forces currently in play are beyond the control of individuals or groups, no matter how powerful they may be, and that these forces will follow a course to an end no one can predict with any degree of upbeat confidence.

Back when we lived on Easy Street, things were getting better for everyone in varying degrees and the ladder of social mobility was available to all: anyone could improve their prospects by putting in the effort.

Fortunes were being minted, lists of reasons to be optimistic proliferated like overfed rabbits and spots of bother ran off the road on their own, requiring nothing of us.

Life on Uneasy Street is, well, different. The lists of reasons to be optimistic are still everywhere, but they now ring hollow, as those conjuring the lists sound increasingly frantic: come on, people, get with the program, it’s all gonna be wunnerful, AI, AI, AI, Roaring 20s, blah blah blah.

The only true believers are those paid to shill the optimism by those seeking to maximize their profits via selling the sizzle rather than the actual steak. The entire exercise of trying to convince us that we still live on Easy Street is simply more evidence that Easy Street is a figment of imagination.

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Is There a Road Map for What’s Ahead?

Is There a Road Map for What’s Ahead?

One of our primary survival traits is the ability to anticipate the future to avoid threats and reap higher yields. We seek a vantage point to view the road ahead, or even better a road map to what’s ahead.

Is there a road map to what’s ahead?  An enormous amount of research and projections are issued daily, proposing answers to the question: what happens next?

In my view, a good starting point is to recall that there are critical differences between open systems and closed systems. A clock is a closed system, and so its functions are predictable.  An ecosystem is an open system, and so predictions are contingent on an unknowably large number of potential changes in inputs, processes and feedback: new invasive species may arrive and displace native species, predators might be decimated by a new disease, etc.

But even open systems operate according to principles we can discern, and so they are not entirely unpredictable or chaotic. For example, when a keystone species is wiped out, the entire ecosystem collapses.

The immense powers of modern technology, engineering, cheap energy and mass media have created an illusory aura of human agency, that we can control our future in the same way we control machinery. This aura has also created a sense that human leaders or elites control our world with god-like powers of precision. This too is an illusion, as the contingencies, forces, feedbacks and second-order effects of open systems are beyond the control of any human leadership.

Consider the collapse of marriage and birthrates globally; leaders recognize the threat this poses and have tried to reverse the tide, with little effect.  Some propose that these dynamics are the result of secret agendas to reduce the human populace, but the causal links required by this theory are not persuasive:…

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Financial Forecast 2025-2032: Please Don’t Be Naive

Financial Forecast 2025-2032: Please Don’t Be Naive

Rather than attempt to evade Caesar’s reach, a better strategy might be to ‘go gray’: blend in, appear average.

Let’s start by stipulating that I don’t “like” this forecast. I’m not “talking my book” (for example, promoting nuclear power because I own shares in a uranium mine) or issuing this forecast because I favor it. I simply see it as the most likely trajectory of the global financial system, based on history and the dynamics of human systems. “Liking” it or not liking it has nothing to do with it: the opinions of Titanic passengers who didn’t “like” that the ship was sinking didn’t affect the outcome.

You already know the global financial system is untenable. In a nutshell, the expansion of production and consumption has been funded by the expansion of credit–money borrowed from future resources and income. The rate of expanding debt far surpasses the anemic rates of expanding production, and this rapidly expanding mountain of debt is perched precariously on the phantom collateral generated by The Everything Bubble, the astounding expansion of asset prices as those with the lowest cost access to credit have bid up every asset class, from real estate to gold to bitcoin to stocks to fine art.

All these assets are phantom collateral because they were bid up on the wings of cheap, abundant credit. History is rather decisive: all credit-asset bubbles pop, and the price of the assets round-trips back to pre-bubble valuations. As the bubble pops, credit shifts from being abundant and near-zero in cost to being scarce and dear.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Staving Off Revolution

Staving Off Revolution

If the leadership chooses happy-story PR and toothless reforms for show in the hopes it will all blow over, these subterfuges have the potential to push dissatisfaction beyond the point of control.

Whatever else we might say or think about the leadership class, they tend to have a keen sense of self-preservation. The ability to issue optimistic visions of sunshine and unicorns with a straight face is valuable, to be sure, but so is the ability to sense that the BS is no longer working and something must be done to stave off a potentially career-ending collapse of confidence.

As a general rule, the ability to maintain a delusional confidence that it’s all going to work out just fine tends to end very poorly for the leadership class. However sincerely it may be uttered, let them eat brioche doesn’t resolve the extreme asymmetries that generate revolutionary disorder. Something more is required, something that either reduces the asymmetries of wealth and power or gives the appearance of doing so.

Staving off revolution requires some action that benefits those for whom the status quo is no longer working. While borrowing and distributing “free money” works for awhile, this profligacy generates its own destabilizing dynamics, and so eventually reducing the asymmetries of wealth and power requires the leadership to take a chunk out of the perquisites and spoils of the financial elite.

Since the leadership class is either beholden to the financial elite or has dual membership in both clubs, the leaders are quickly declared “traitors to their class” even as they are acting to stave off the overthrow of the predatory financial elite that pushed asymmetries to destabilizing extremes.

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What Happens When There’s Nobody Left to Save Us?

What Happens When There’s Nobody Left to Save Us?

Passively waiting for centralized powers to “save us” from their own excesses is not a solution.

It’s no exaggeration to say that our way of life depends on somebody somewhere saving us from the excesses that are the bedrock of our way of life. What excesses, you ask? There are none. This is true in one sense: all the excesses have been normalized by previous “saves”: whenever the bedrock excesses threaten to collapse under their own weight, the Federal Reserve or the Federal government rush in to save us from the excesses they’ve created.

Stripped of artifice, the bedrock excess that has been completely normalized is to goose consumption by borrowing from future earnings and resources. As long as growth is eternal, this works great: we can always pay more interest on ever-expanding debt with future earnings because those will be inevitably be even larger than the interest due.

Creating money out of thin air is another mechanism that achieves the same goal: goosing consumption via boosting the value of assets to generate a “wealth effect” that lifts all boats. This is also predicated on the eternal expansion of earnings, so wage earners can afford to consume as new money ceaselessly devalues the purchasing power of existing money (what we call inflation).

The problem is these “saves” only work if the interest rate is eternally near-zero and the costs of production are eternally declining: as long as it costs almost nothing to borrow more money into existence and production costs continue to drop, enabling consumers to afford more goodies even as the purchasing power of their wages declines, then all is well.
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Irony Alert: “Outlawing” Recession Has Made a Monster Recession Inevitable

Irony Alert: “Outlawing” Recession Has Made a Monster Recession Inevitable

Those who came of age after 1982 have never experienced a real recession, and so they’re unprepared for anything other than guarantees of rescue and permanent expansion.

The mainstream view is that recession is caused by economic-financial factors. The mainstream view is wrong, for recession is ultimately caused by Wetware1.0–human nature. Human nature–our innate attraction to windfalls and something-for-nothing, our ability to habituate to extremes and normalize counterproductive dynamics–manifest as economic-financial factors, but these are effects, not causes.

The mainstream view is that recessions are bad, so let’s make sure they never happen. In other words, let’s outlaw them by flooding the economy and financial system with Federal Reserve monetary stimulus and federal stimulus via increased deficit spending.

The history of the past 40 years “proves” these policies effectively eliminate recession: all recessions since 1981-82 have been shallow and brief, basically a spot of bother that lasts one quarter.

Our Wetware1.0 has responded to this “no recession guarantee” in ways that count as unintended consequences. Massive “emergency” stimulus that became permanent policy has created a bubble economy in which low interest rates and unlimited credit for those who are more equal than others has sparked demand for income-producing assets, which then sparked a speculative mania.

We’ve habituated to both the bubble economy and the speculative mania so that these are now considered normal. But behind the comfortable normalization, something counterproductive has taken hold: we’re now addicted to the bubble economy and its crazed twin, speculative mania. If the bubbles pop and speculators go broke, the economy and financial system will both implode.

Without ZIRP (zero-interest rate policy), capital actually has a cost, and the bubble economy cannot survive if capital has a cost. Once capital has a cost, then speculation becomes risky, and speculation cannot survive if risk actually has a cost.

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The Era of Easy Money Ruined Us

The Era of Easy Money Ruined Us

The rot caused by easy money will only become fully visible when the hollowed out institutions start collapsing under the weight of incompetence, debt and hubris.

We have yet to reach a full reckoning of the consequences of the era of easy money, but it’s abundantly clear that it ruined us. The damage was incremental at first, but the perverse incentives and distortions of easy money–zero-interest rate policy (ZIRP), credit available without limits to those who are more equal than others–accelerated the institutionalization of these toxic dynamics throughout the economy and society.

Fifteen long years later, the damage cannot be undone because the entire status quo is now dependent on the easy-money bubble for its survival. Should the bubbles inflated by easy money pop, the financial system and the economy will collapse into a putrid heap, undone by the perversions and distortions of endless easy money.

Easy money created destructive, mutually reinforcing distortions on multiple fronts. Let’s examine the primary ways easy money led to ruin.

1. The near-zero rate credit was distributed asymmetrically; only the wealthiest few had access to the open spigot of “free money.” The rest of us saw mortgage rates decline, but we were still paying much higher rates of interest than corporations, banks and financiers.

If we’d all been given the opportunity to borrow a couple million dollars at 1% and put the easy money into bonds yielding 2.5%, skimming a low-risk 1.5% for producing nothing, we’d have jumped on it. But that opportunity was only available to banks, the super-wealthy, corporations and financiers.

The charts below show the perverse consequences of offering the wealthiest few limitless money at near-zero rates while the rest of us paid much higher interest. The wealthiest few could buy income-producing assets on the cheap at carrying costs no ordinary investor could match…

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Rome Was Eternal, Until It Wasn’t: Imperial Analogs of Decay

Rome Was Eternal, Until It Wasn’t: Imperial Analogs of Decay

The tricky part is distinguishing the critical dependencies–those resources the empire literally cannot do without–from longer-term sources of decay and decline.

In response to my recent post What If There Are No Analogs for 2024?, an astute reader nominated the Roman Empire as a fitting analog. Longtime readers know I’ve often discussed the complex history of Western Rome’s decay and collapse, for example, Why Rome Collapsed: Lessons For the Present (August 11, 2023).

Dozens of other posts on the topic stretch back to 2009: Complacency and The Will To Radical Reform (February 12, 2009)

What conclusions can we draw from recent research and the voluminous work done by previous generations of historians? Our first conclusion is simply to state the obvious: it’s complicated. There was no one cause of Western Rome’s decay and collapse. A multitude of factors generated feedback loops and responses over hundreds of years, some more successful than others.

Indeed, we cannot help but be struck by how many times impending collapse was staved off by brilliant leadership and policy adjustments.

Our second conclusion is to distinguish between the erosive forces of decay and critical vulnerabilities that can trigger collapse. Many authors have pointed to moral decay and fiscal over-reach as sources of Rome’s eventual fall, but there were far more pressing dependencies that created potentially fatal vulnerabilities.

In the case of Western Rome, these included:

1. The depletion of the silver mines in Spain (and the eventual loss of Spain to the Visigoths). Once you run out of hard currency, your free-spending days are over. This dependence on large quantities of hard currency to fund your armed forces is a trigger for collapse.

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Here’s How “Prosperity” Ends: Global Bubbles Are Popping

Here’s How “Prosperity” Ends: Global Bubbles Are Popping

So here we are: the global credit-asset bubbles are popping, and the illusory “prosperity” generated by the bubbles is about to tumble off a cliff.

There are two kinds of prosperity, one fake, one real. Bogus “prosperity” depends on credit-asset bubbles inflating, magically creating “wealth” not from labor, production or improving productivity, but from the value of assets soaring as bubbles inflate.

This bubble-generated “wealth” then fuels a vast expansion of credit and consumption as assets soaring in value increases the collateral available to borrow against, and the occasional sale of soaring assets generate capital gains, stock options, etc. which then fund sharply higher consumption.

When the value of a modest home skyrockets from $200,000 to $1,000,000 in a few years, that $800,000 in gain was not the result of any improvement in utility. The house provides the same shelter it did when it was worth 20% of its current value. The $800,000 is gain is the result of the abundance of low-cost credit and the global search for a yield above zero.

Eventually, this vast expansion of “money” chasing yields and seeking places to park all the excess cash trickles into the real economy and the result is inflationary. Consider how soaring home prices affect rents.

When an investor bought the modest home for $200,000, the costs of ownership were low due to the costs being linked to the value: the property tax, insurance and mortgage were all based on the valuation. (The costs of maintenance were unrelated to valuation, of course, being based on the age and quality of construction.) Let’s say the modest house rents for $1,500 per month.

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The Race to the Bottom Accelerates

The Race to the Bottom Accelerates

When competence, transparency and accountability are all punished, the Race to the Bottom accelerates.

Race to the Bottom describes the process of competitive devaluation, where value is gutted to remain competitive with those who are grabbing market share by stripping out quality, value, durability, transparency, accountability and competence.

We see the global Race to the Bottom in everyday products: the quality of goods has plummeted as manufacturers compete to reduce costs to maintain high profit margins by stripping out the quality and durability of components. We see it in shrinkflation, where the cereal box contains less cereal while the price ratchets higher.

We see it when cereals that once contained no sugar are now sickly-sweet because the manufacturer is losing market share to less healthy sugar-bomb cereals.

We see it in healthcare where costs have been so ruthlessly stripped out to boost profits that it takes months to get an appointment and overworked caregivers no longer have the “luxury” of providing the care they were trained to provide. Routine procedures and hospital stays now carry pricetags equal to four years college tuition or a modest house.

The Race to the Bottom isn’t limited to goods and services. Consider the bedrock of the social order, civility. Civility in discourse is now rarer than sightings of UFOs / UAPs.

In politics, scoring cheap points while ignoring the nation’s social decay and unsustainable bubble economy is another example of the Race to the Bottom. Is getting to the bottom of the Taylor Swift ticketing “fiasco” really the most pressing issue that politicians need to address? It would seem so.

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Contrarian Thoughts on the Petro-Yuan and Gold-Backed Currencies

Contrarian Thoughts on the Petro-Yuan and Gold-Backed Currencies

Rather than cheer the concept of a new currency, we’re better served to look at the velocity of that currency and the cycles of investing that currency in assets denominated in that currency for a low-risk return.

Longtime readers know not to expect me to rubber-stamp anything, be it the status quo or proposed alternatives. Our interests are best served by screening everything through the mesh of independent analysis, a.k.a. contrarianism. Which brings us to the two sources of alt-media excitement in the currency space, the petro-yuan and another wave of proposed <i<>gold-backed currencies.

I’m all for competing currencies. The more transparent and open the market for currencies, the better. In my view, everyone should be able to buy and trade whatever currencies they feel best suits their goals and purposes.

In all the excitement over de-dollarization, some basics tend to get overlooked.

1. The yuan remains pegged to the US dollar, so it remains a proxy for the USD. It will only become a true reserve currency when China lets the yuan float freely on the global FX market and yuan-denominated bonds also float freely on global bond markets. In other words, a currency can only be a reserve currency rather than a proxy if the price and risk of the currency is discovered by global markets, not centralized monetary/state authorities.

2. Most commentators stop on first base of the oil-currency cycle: China buys oil from exporting nations by exchanging yuan for oil. So far so good. But what can the oil exporters do with the yuan? That’s the tricky part: the petro-yuan has to work not just for China but for the oil exporters who will be accumulating billions of yuan.

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Want to Know Where the Economy Is Going? Watch The Top 10%

Want to Know Where the Economy Is Going? Watch The Top 10%

Should the wealth effect reverse as assets fall, capital gains evaporate and investment income declines, the top 10% will no longer have the means or appetite to spend so freely.

Soaring wealth-income inequality has all sorts of consequences. As many (including me) have noted, the concentration of wealth and income in the top 0.1% has enabled the few to buy political influence to protect their interests at the expense of the many and the common good.

In other words, extreme wealth-income inequality dismantles democracy. There is no way to sugarcoat this reality.

But the concentration of wealth and income isn’t limited to the top 0.1% or top 1%. The top 5% and top 10% have increased their share of household wealth and income, too, and this has far-reaching consequences for the economy, as the top 10% accounts for the bulk not just of income but of spending.

According to the Federal Reserve, ( Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989), the top 1% owned 22.7% of all household wealth in 1989. Their share increased to 30.6% in 2022. The share of the 9% below the top 1% (90% to 99%) remained virtually unchanged at 37.4%. The top 10% own 68% of all household wealth.

But this doesn’t reflect the real concentration of income-producing assets, i.e. investments. Total household wealth includes the family home, the F-150 truck, the snowmobile, etc. What separates the economic classes isn’t their household possessions, it’s their ownership of assets that generate income and capital gains.

As the chart below shows, the top 10% own the vast majority of business equity, stocks/bonds and income-producing real estate, between 80% and 90% of each category.

This means the tremendous increases in asset valuations of the past two decades have flowed almost exclusively to the top 10%, with the important caveat that the vast majority of the gains in income and wealth have flowed to the top 0.1%, top 1% and top 5%.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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