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Michael Jackson’s Life a Disturbing Portrayal of American Culture

Note: I don’t normally get into celebrity deaths, but to say Michael Jackson was an icon would be an understatement. Despite any number of freak-things related to the King of Pop, he was still an amazingly talented individual who created some fantastic music. I can’t say he’ll be missed — he’s only missed insomuch as I could displace the good things about him from the bad. And that had become increasingly difficult if not impossible over the past ten years.

From Yahoo! Finance comes an article titled “Jackson lived like king but died awash in debt.” You probably already know the gist. Jackson created any number of fantasies, from his freak narcissim to Neverland Ranch. He lived a life of extravagance and died almost a half billion dollars in debt.

A few short descriptors that come to mind when I think about Michael Jackson:

  • He was an amazing talent and produced a veritable catalog of pop masterpieces.
  • His family was dysfunctional — often disturbingly so.
  • He went from lavish wealth to huge debt. He got foreclosed on with Neverland Ranch.
  • After things had started going downhill, MJ’s investment in the Beatles’ songs (owning the copyrights) kept him afloat. It has always struck me as odd that you could own someone else’s musical creation. Rent seeking off of intellectual property rights? Check.
  • Jackson was freakishly narcissistic and/or had an extreme case of body dysmorphic disorder, engaging in all sorts of plastic surgery endeavors that ultimately made him look alien/gross/non-human.
  • He had some serious demons with regard to his sexual identity. Whether he actually acted on these things or not, I don’t know — it doesn’t matter, really. He had problems and they related to his sexuality.
  • MJ was one of most obsessed-over celebrities ever. And look how that turned out — he made his kids wear masks in public.
  • He died young of a heart attack.

I submit that Michael Jackson’s life is one of the more disturbing examples of modern American culture. He was an extreme case, for sure, but his problems are not unique: too much debt, too much spending, rent-seeking off of other’s work, twisted narcissism, broken family, repressed sexuality, and dying young of a heart attack*, the end result of a life of stress and poor nutrition.

It makes me sad to make this connection, but it’s just too striking to ignore.

America, what have we become?

* I guess cause of death is yet to be officially ascertained, but we’ll roll with this for now.

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Mr. Taleb Goes to Washington…goes-washington

Marion Maneker of The Big Money (part of Slate) has a nice article on Nassim Nicholas Taleb that discusses Taleb’s recent attendance at the Wall Street Journal’s “Future of Finance” conference in Washington D.C. The article describes righteous indignation at the ongoing and deepening financial calamity and what he suggests might be a more robust financial system. It’s a good read it is entirety, though below I’m saving down the major takeaways.

Taleb recently expounded upon the charlatan theme (and their positive advice) on his personal “blog.” Also, note Taleb’s closing words and see if you aren’t reminded of Jon Stewart’s big point in his recent interview with Jim Cramer.

… Taleb’s anger at the economic establishment [3] that drove us over this cliff—and populates the Journal’s conference—makes him a representative figure of ordinary people. Like most Americans, Taleb is seething with rage about the financial establishment’s role in bringing the about credit crash. “Nobody saw the crisis coming,” he says. “Bernanke, all these guys, I want them out. They proved incompetent, they crashed the plane.”

Unlike us … Taleb is comfortable with the theory and practice that undergirds the whole system of options, derivatives, and risk management that has spun so recklessly out of control. That talent mixed with his righteous anger makes him a rare bird: an Everyman who can do the equations. …

In normal times, the conferencariat are an arrogant bunch. This is something [Alan Murray of the WSJ] knows well from his travels on the conference circuit, which begins each year with the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Davos is usually filled with people who have all the answers,” Murray says. “What was so striking about Davos this year was all these people, for once, didn’t have all the answers. No one could tell you with certainty what was happening or what needed to be done.”

No one but Nassim Taleb. Before Davos, Murray read The Black Swan. At the conference, the newspaperman and the trader had many conversations over the course of four days. Murray came to the conclusion that Taleb was the iconic figure of Davos in 2009. “In my mind, he had the perfect message for the moment.” …

[As for the Future of Finance conference, Taleb] left after dinner the first night. While the 130-person conference debated the government’s new regulations that George Soros described as merely “tinkering” with the system, Taleb has a clear-eyed plan.

First, he says, we have to unmask the charlatans of risk like Myron Scholes. To Taleb, Scholes is the Great Oz in this Emerald City because his work on options and derivatives allowed the whole of the financial system to adopt poorly understood products-like the ones that brought AIG down-that hide risk. To Taleb, Scholes’ academic work, which enabled the widespread use of complex derivatives, was like “giving children dynamite.”

“This guy should be in a retirement home doing Sudoku,” Taleb says. “His funds have blown up twice [6]. He shouldn’t be allowed in Washington to lecture anyone on risk.”

With complex derivatives unmasked and, in Taleb’s vision of the future, outlawed, the next step is to create a more robust version of capitalism. Taleb calls it Capitalism 2.0. Robustness begins with a dismantling of debt. Leverage was the gas that inflated the financial system until it was too big, too fragile, and too volatile.

Over the past 20 years, the financial system has grown ever more complex. Building on a greater computing capacity and communication speed—”Bank runs now take place at the speed of BlackBerry”—Taleb recognizes that the financial system now possesses an efficiency that creates volatility. That cannot and will not go away.

We cannot have both debt leverage and a hyper-efficient system—the volatility is just too great. What Taleb explains—which no one else does—is that efficiency is already a form of leverage. A highly efficient system removes slack and magnifies small changes. Think of the efficient system as a high-performance aircraft. Each minute of steering input creates a rapid and violent shift of course, speed, or altitude. The system itself is souped up even before you add the debt. Once you do, the pilot is equally jacked up and twitchy, creating an explosive combination. Now imagine that fighter jet trying to fly in a 1,000-plane formation, and you get an idea of the world financial system in the 21st century.

We can’t erase the technology that created the planes, so we’ll have to make sure we fly sober, maybe even with an onboard computer that dampens the controls. That means getting rid of the debt. It’s that simple.

A deleveraged financial system is a stable one, especially if we increase the redundancy within the system. That’s an idea Taleb has taken from biology. But in finance, redundancy means two things: not having players in the game who are “too big to fail” and not allowing anyone—from the individual to the institution—to play with too much money. Redundancy means have cash on the side, not risking it all, and not becoming dependent upon financial assets for your economic well-being.

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How the United States will go Insolvent

Charles Hugh Smith has a fantastic, easy-to-follow post today titled, The Road to National Insolvency. Therein Smith details the debt-rolling finance structure that the United States Treasury has employed to pay off existing debt, interest on said debt and new deficit spending. He then explains how current factors have kept a lid on borrowing costs (interest rates or bond yields) on Treasuries. Finally, he speculates on how going forward the dampened global economy and demand for yield by investors (i.e. investors will only accept marginal yields on debt for so long) will put enormous upward pressures on borrowing costs, thereby ultimately leading to much higher interest rates, sovereign debt-servicing costs and finally to U.S. insolvency.

I happen to agree with Smith, so I’m biased in that regard (Disclosure: short TLT via puts and long TBT). I think the biggest unknown is just when we hit the tipping point and yields start spiking dramatically. It could happen very quickly and with little notice. So be careful out there!

Well organized, written and worth the read in it’s entirety: the clip below is just CHS’s conclusion:

Four short years of $2 trillion deficits will effectively double the U.S. national debt and the interest it pays. The Social Security surpluses are “borrowed” every year without any notice, so the U.S. debt rose by $300 billion a year even when it supposedly ran a slight surplus; that $300 billion+ a year in new debt goes on top of the stated $2 trillion/year in deficit spending.

So the nightmare scenario is this: the debt doubles over the next 4-5 years, causing interest payments to double from $450B to $900B a year. But interest rates also double due to the global shrinkage of surplus capital and the monumental rise in demand for capital (borrowing). The $900B in interest then doubles to $1.8 trillion–roughly equal to Medicare, Social Security and the Pentagon combined.

Can’t happen? Really? With tax revenues dropping along with profits, employment and assets, then where will the political will arise to cap entitlements and other spending? I predict the U.S. will continue borrowing trillions of dollars until it is no longer able to do so.

By then, the interest owed each and every year will crowd out all other spending. With the debt machine broken, the government will simply be unable to service its debt and fund all its mandated entitlements and other programs. It will be insolvent.