Streetwise Professor

July 29, 2022

This Is Not Your Father’s Recession: This Is Your Economy on Puberty Blockers

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:51 pm

The latest hysteria in DC and the media revolves on whether the United States is currently in a recession, given that real GDP has contracted in consecutive quarters. That has always been the good-enough-for-government-work definition of a recession, but the administration and its media mina birds are saying “ackshually that’s NOT the technical definition of a recession NBER blah blah blah low unemployment blah blah blah.”

So what is it? Well, the dimwitted press secretary and the only slightly more witted head of the National Economic Council, the appalling apparatchik Brian Deese, inform us that the economy is “in transition.” From what to what, they don’t say. Just . . . in transition. So I guess the economy is on puberty blockers or something. Because you know those are a thing now.

This obsessing over terminology brings to mind Jimmy Carter’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Alfred E. Kahn. In 1980 Kahn made the mistake of referring to the economy being in depression or recession and he was promptly taken to the woodshed by the political types in the White House. Koch then announced he was foregoing use of those words, and would instead say that the economy was in a banana. After Chiquita (if memory serves) complained, he changed “banana” to “kumquat.”

Kahn was a real economist with a real sense of humor. In other words, totally different that the current crowd of humorless lilliputians.

The parallel with Carter demonstrates one thing though: when an administration freaks out about terminology, it means that they are frantic and desperate and have no substantive case to make. But calling a turd ice cream doesn’t improve the taste.

In fact, the economy’s performance is actually worse than the GDP figures alone would suggest. Instead of underperforming for two quarters, the economy has actually underperformed for three quarters. That’s illustrated in this chart of the shortfall of GDP from potential (as measured by the Fed):

Note that prior to the fourth quarter of 2021, the economy was rebounding sharply from the COVID policy-created collapse. (Not the COVID-created collapse: the COVID policy-created collapse.). The rate of convergence of GDP to potential slowed in the quarter Biden took office, then speeded up for a quarter. By 3Q21, the gap had narrowed to $108 billion, and actual GDP was 99.5 percent of potential. But in the fourth quarter, the gap widened by $169 billion. It widened again by $144 billion in 1Q22, and a further $155 billion in 2Q22.

Based on the trend prior to the fourth quarter of last year, it would have been reasonable to expect that the gap would have been closed by the end of 2021. That would have meant about $108 billion in convergence in the fourth quarter. Adding that $108 billion “shoulda” convergence to the actual divergence of $467 billion gets you to $575 billion in underperformance in the last three quarters.

You can say that this isn’t akshually evidence of a recession, and I really don’t care if you do (because it makes you look like an idiot). You CAN’T say that this doesn’t mean the economy has sucked for 9 months. Nine. Not six.

Oh, and of course, inflation has been raging over that period of time.

How’s that Phillips Curve working out guys? Can you say “stagflation”? Well, you probably won’t say that either, but it’s accurate.

And what is our wonderful government doing in these stagflationary times? Well, experiencing another bout of fiscal diarrhea that resembles a colitis sufferer binging on ExLax.

For starters there is the $52 billion CHIPS act, which is a subsidy boodoggle. There is no economic case whatsoever for it. If computer chips are scarce and prices are high, that provides the right incentive to invest. But the chip industry realizes that Uncle Sucker will crank up the printing machine if they whine loud enough. So they whine “supply chain yadda yadda”, and Uncle Sucker turns the crank.

On deck is the odds-on-favorite for most Orwellian named thing of 2022: “The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.” More government spending (almost $1 trillion) allegedly paid for with higher taxes (which we know never materialize). Since fiscal excess is the main driver of the recent inflation, this Inflation Reduction Act will increase inflation.

It actually might be better if the government dropped the trillion from helicopters and let us decide where to spend it–then we’d just have the inflationary consequences.

But nooooo. The bill ladles out billions in subsidies for “renewable energy” boondoggles which will raise the true cost of energy because “renewables” are notoriously inefficient. (I put “renewables” in quotes because copper, lithium, cobalt, etc., are not renewable.) And it imposes new levies on efficient fossil fuels like natural gas and coal. Which will raise the cost of energy further.

So deciding where to spend what it shouldn’t be spending at all will harm the economy further.

There’s also some health care fuckery included but I can only take so much so you’re on your own to learn about that.

And of course many Retardicans in Congress, especially in the Senate, are totally on board.

Meaning that Congress and the administration are hell bent on fueling stagflation and making energy more expensive and less efficicient, while arguing over the esoteric meaning of a word pretty much everybody understood just fine before, oh, Monday.

Fiddling while the dollar burns. And you’re the one who will get burned the worst.

July 23, 2022

Black Jack: A Coda

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:04 pm

To round out the picture of Logan’s antagonism to service academies, it is worth noting that although he was a pre-War Democrat from a part of Illinois (“Little Egypt,” in the far south of the state) that was widely deemed to be sympathetic to the South, post-War Logan was an ardent pro-Reconstruction Republican and one of the most widely renowned practitioners of “bloody shirt” politics. He hated the South with a passion, and this also contributed to his West Point/Annapolis animus.

Logan’s book The Volunteer Soldier in America has a very strong populist, republican (small “r”) tone. Many of his arguments against the academies echo those of Jeffersonians and Jacksonians before him, perhaps not surprisingly given Logan’s upbringing in a staunch Jacksonian area of the country. Logan believed the academies to be anti-republican, aristocratic, and oligarchic in nature, and believed their graduates to be anti-republican and aristocratic in turn. Thus, they were a threat to self-government, whereas a military firmly rooted in the people, through a militia system, would not be.

Logan linked this aristocratic predilection to the South, which he viewed as being aristocratic and anti-republican due to slavery. He believed slavery was incompatible with popular rule, and inevitably led to the dominance of an aristocratic class. He argued that if secession had succeeded, the South would have become a monarchy, not a republic.

This was in turn linked to his view of the pernicious effects of the political nature of academy appointments: anti-republican elements in the country (especially in the South) corrupted the academies, and hence the military, with their appointment of like minded cadets and midshipmen.

Logan also expressed what could be called an early version of capture theory. He argued that the military establishment had captured the government, and as a result was able to extract lavish benefits from it. No doubt this astounded those serving in the 1870s-1880s military, who commonly complained of low pay, glacial promotion, and inadequate numbers.

So I think it’s fair to say that Logan’s anti-academy, anti-professional military views were a combination of bitter personal experience and political populism. In many ways, he was a 19th century expositor of a debate that had raged in the United States since before the founding: did the US need a professional military?; was a professional military a threat to self-government?

Bloody shirt politics became less and less popular after the Hayes-Tilden election, and the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Within a decade Logan was increasingly unpopular, as this print from 1885 shows:

That’s Logan getting booed off the stage. Note the blood-stained shirt hanging on his back.

As an aside, when skimming through Logan’s book I was reminded of the works of a contemporary, and another Civil War veteran, Theodore Ayrault Dodge. Dodge wrote many books on military history, including biographies of Gustavus Adolphus, Hannibal, Alexander, Napoleon, Frederick, and Caesar. In his book on Caesar, he repeatedly lauded the citizen-based Roman armies of the Republic, and compared Caesar’s professional army to them in very unfavorable terms.

Dodge was also a volunteer soldier, losing a leg at Gettysburg–ironically while in O. O. Howards XI Corps. He obviously shared Logan’s beliefs regarding the correct military for a republic, and the superiority of a popular, volunteer army over a professional one.

You can see echoes of these views in modern American politics, especially in this age of resurgent populism–and the reaction against it.

Black Jack and West Point

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 3:11 pm

Yesterday I posted a thread on Twitter on the anniversary of one of the most fascinating battles of the Civil War, Hood’s Second Sortie AKA the Battle of Atlanta.

As say in the thread, and as I wrote about here in 2010, the performance of the Union Army of the Tennessee was extraordinary. It was assailed from front, flank, and rear, yet gamely hung on and repelled everything thrown at it. In my opinion, in the summer of 1864 the Army of the Tennessee was the finest fighting force of its size in the world. It was battle tried but not battle wearied. It had a core of veterans who had experienced nothing but victory, and had not suffered the debilitating casualties (especially among officers) that had made the Army of the Potomac and even the Army of Northern Virginia shadows of their 1862-1863 selves.

The last tweet in my thread was about General John “Black Jack” Logan, commander of the Army of the Tennessee’s XV Corps, who rallied the shattered center of his line and drove the Confederates back to their lines in Atlanta. (The image in the first tweet in the thread is Don Troiani’s depiction of the culmination of the counterattack, with the 66th Illinois (“Birge’s Sharpshooters”) recapturing the 20 pounder Parrot rifles of DeGress’ Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery.)

James McPherson, the commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was killed during the fighting on 22 July. Logan was named as his replacement–but this was temporary. W. T. Sherman (my Twitter avi :P) distrusted Logan because he was a politician, not a West Pointer. So he named Oliver O. Howard (known to some cynics as “Uh-oh Howard”) as McPherson’s permanent replacement.

Logan was understandably bitter. He had fought with distinction with the Army of the Tennessee or its antecedents from Belmont in November, 1861 through Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign (playing a vital role at Champion Hill and the Siege), and the entire Atlanta Campaign. Howard, on the other hand, was a stranger, having come from the Eastern Theater only in October, 1863, and then serving in the Army of the Cumberland. Moreover, he had accumulated a record of failure in the East, seeing his XI Corps routed at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

But if they had had USMA class rings back then, Howard could have knocked one, and consequently he got the nod over the man who was likely the most accomplished political general of the war.

Major General John A. Logan

In the years after the war, Logan resumed his political career, and was a prominent Senator from Illinois and was the VP candidate on the (failed) Republican ticket in 1884.

During his Senate career, Logan was an outspoken critic of West Point (and the Naval Academy as well). As the leader of volunteers during the Civil War, and as a civilian soldier himself, he was a fervent supporter of Union veterans (being the second commander of the GAR and the moving force behind Memorial Day) and the ideal of the citizen soldier. He believed passionately that an army and navy of–and led by–motivated, patriotic, and talented civilians was far superior to one led by careerists churned out of the service academies.

Near the end of his life, he summarized–if that’s the right word to apply to a 682 page book–his case against the professional military, and professional military education, in his The Volunteer Soldier of America. He made many criticisms of the service academies, but the gravamen of his criticism was that the appointment system (in which every aspiring cadet or midshipman had to secure an appointment from a member of Congress-as is true to this day) meant that the officer corps was selected on the basis of political considerations, rather than merit or military talent. As a result, the military was dominated by unimaginative, unimpressive people. You know, like O. O. Howard. He was also deeply offended by preferences shown to regular officers in terms of pay and retirement benefits.

When you think about it, these are rather remarkable criticisms for a career politician to make. But Logan was extremely serious about them. And his criticisms were thoughtful ones, and backed with not a little evidence. But the real foundation of Logan’s brief was his experience in the Civil War leading volunteers (and arguably the most exceptional group of volunteers 1861-1865) while under the command of West Pointers. He was obviously highly unimpressed.

And understandably outraged at the slight of being supplanted by a plodding professional after almost three years of exceptional service, most notably on 22 July, 1864.

Although deprived of the command of the Army of the Tennessee for the March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign, Sherman did give Logan the honor of leading the army during its triumphal procession during the Grand Review in Washington in May, 1865. There, the throng of spectators marveled at Logan’s westerners, and remarked at their height, hardy appearance, and long loping strides (in contrast to the crisp easterners of the Army of the Potomac who had marched the day before).

Logan is third from the right, on the light horse.

Here is the New York Times account:

Immediately following was Maj.-Gen. JOHN A. LOGAN, the successor of Gen. HOWARD, in the command of the Army of the Tennessee, mounted on a superbly dapple grey stallion, which careered and plunged just enough to show the General’s fine horsemanship. LOGAN, with his firm set features, deep black moustache, and military bearing was marked for the most vociferous applause from the very moment his prancing steed appeared on the avenue.

Soon comes the head of the Fifteenth Corps, led by the accomplished HAZEN, the hero of Fort McAllister, and now all eyes turn upon the bronzed veterans while move by with steady, sturdy step. The magnificent physique of the men at once elicits the admiration of all; tall, broad-shouldered, stalwart men, the peasantry of the West — the best material in the whole world for armies. The brigades move by with elastic, springing step, in excellent order, and fully equal to the marching of yesterday, save that the intervals between brigades and divisions were longer, though the regiments themselves were kept well closed up. At the head of each brigade was a battalion of black pioneers, the simon pure contraband, in the garments he wore on the plantation, with shovel and axe on the shoulder, marching with even front, sturdy step and lofty air. The badge of the Fifteenth Corps (for the Western armies have also adopted this insignia) is a cartridge-box, half encircled by the words, “forty rounds.” It is just forty rounds more than is now needed. 

(Two of my ancestors, one in the XV Corps, the other in the XIV Corps, participated in the Review.)

As one of its foes–Joseph E. Johnston–said,  “I made up my mind that there had been no such army since the days of Julius Caesar. And every man, and virtually all of the officers, was a volunteer. John Logan thought that it was men such as those, not drones trained on The Plain at West Point, to whom America should trust its defense.

PS. I wrote this post in response to a suggestion from my friend Ty Kelly, who said I should edit Logan’s Wikipedia page to fill out the story in my last tweet. I thought the subject deserved a fuller treatment, hence the post.

Putin’s Hamster Wheel Spins Bloodily On

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:46 pm

The war in Ukraine grinds on, and recent developments–non-developments really–mean that it will grind on for a long time to come. Specifically, Russian Foreign Minister stated that Russian territorial goals were not limited to the Donbas but included (at least) the Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions. For his part, Ukrainian president Zelensky declared that Ukraine would attempt to negotiate a cease fire only after his country had recaptured all of the areas previously seized by the Russians (presumably including Crimea as well). I say “non-developments” because they represent mere restatements of previous positions.

These stated goals are clearly irreconcilable. Therefore, the beat will go on. And on. And on.

Russia continues to grind, but at an even slower pace than in May and June–and that pace was glacial. Ukraine is making some gains around Kherson, and is intimating that it will mount an offensive there. Even if successful, that will put the attempting-to-take-a-city-shoe–with all the attendant casualties–on the other foot. And even if successful, it will not be decisive, especially given Putin’s obvious bloody mindedness. Zelensky’s ambition of decisive victory is delusional.

Even the one glimmer of hope in the situation shone weakly for only a few hours. The day after a deal brokered by Turkey was reached between Russia and Ukraine to resume grain shipments from Ukraine, the Russians launched a small salvo of Kaliber cruise missiles at the port of Odesa/Odessa. As this video shows, firing Kalibers in ones and twos at a port poses relatively little threat to port infrastructure:

But they don’t have to in order to make the agreement a meaningless scrap of paper. Cruise missiles, even in penny packets, would pose a threat to ships loading at the port. The brazenness of the Russian action before the ink was dry on the grain export deal makes it plain that calling in Odesa/Odessa is nothing but a game of Russian roulette–literally. Few if any carriers (or their insurers) will be game to play, especially given the other dangers (e.g., mines).

So what Putin giveth with one hand to great fanfare he taketh away with little more than a shrug. A typically cynical play.

The biggest losers from all this (other than the combatants themselves, of course) are the Europeans. They are looking at a cold, dark winter. And they are looking at serious economic damage for as long as this lasts. German industry (chemicals especially) will suffer greatly from protracted high energy prices, natural gas in particular.

German resolve, such as it was, is already cracking. It is fading its promises to provide weapons to Ukraine, and its foreign minister said the quiet part out loud: “If we don’t get the gas turbine, then we won’t get any more gas, and then we won’t be able to provide any support for Ukraine at all, because then we’ll be busy with popular uprisings.” Translation: Ukraine, we don’t have your backs–but we might stab you there! (“At your feet or at your throat” also comes to mind.)

She backtracked, but her words are a vivid example of Michael Kinsley’s definition of a gaffe: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Or in this instance, “she.”

Putin is executing a major psyop, varying the volumes of gas shipped to Europe. “Nice little energy-dependent economy you got here. Shame if anything happened to it.”

The likely outcome is that the western Europeans will temporize. They won’t back off on sanctions altogether, but their support for Ukraine and their opposition to Russia will be hedged and tepid at best. They will choose the muddle course, because they don’t have the guts either to confront Putin or to capitulate to him. This will also help extend the stalemate.

Years ago I used to refer to “Putin’s hamster wheel.” The fiasco in Ukraine is just a particularly bloody version of that. And betting on form, it will continue to spin for the indefinite future.

July 18, 2022

The Imperative of an American Lustration

Filed under: CoronaCrisis,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:56 pm

In the aftermath of the downfall of the Soviet empire, many of its former captive nations (like the Baltics, Poland, and the Czech Republic) implemented a policy of “lustration,” a process of identifying, exposing, and removing officials who were complicit in the oppressions and crimes of the Communist governments that they served. Reading the reviews of Deborah Birx’s book by Michael Senger and Jeffrey Tucker of the Brownstone Institute makes it clear that the post-Communist example is worthy of imitation in post-COVID (speaking optimistically) world.

In her appalling book, this appalling woman chronicles her myriad appalling deeds. In a nutshell, she lied and manipulated and manipulated and lied in order to impose her desired COVID strategy–severe lockdown, of indefinite duration. Moreover, her book makes clear that her beliefs and desires were not grounded in science or fact or a sober appraisal of trade-offs (something that did not enter her “thinking” in the least), but were instead purely the product of her monomania, righteous ignorance, and not a little CCP-philia.

And because largely of this, and her, 330 million Americans had their lives and livelihoods turned upside down.

Of course as egregious as she was, Birx did not work alone. Some of her co-conspirators (and yes, that is the right word) are known: Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, Robert Redfield, Matthew Pottinger. But there were necessarily many other accessories with much lower public profiles, or indeed no public profilecs at all.

Given the massive harm inflicted on the country, and the lives and liberties of its citizens, the actors and their acts must be known. And not merely through the self-interested memoirs of confessed (indeed boastful) liars. This is necessary not just to punish the guilty (though any punishment will not come anywhere near the harm), but to shed a light on how government “works” in the hope it may not “work” this way in the future.

That’s the purpose of lustration.

The public health establishment should of course be a focus of this effort, to investigate its role in shaping the response to COVID and also its potential role in causing it. But not the only one. The actions of the FDA in approving vaccines and responding (or not, more accurately) to widespread reports of adverse side effects also demand examination. (Look at how the FDA responded to a report about contamination at the Abbot baby formula factory, and compare to how it is responding–or not–to report after report regarding “vaccine” side-effects.)

The military as well. Who is responsible for the vaccine mandates that have devastated morale, led to the separation, resignation, or failure to re-enlist of thousands of dedicated soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and which are a major cause in the military’s current shocking recruiting shortfalls? Why did they make this decision? Why are they sticking to it so mulishly despite the obvious consequences?

And the need for cleansing extends beyond COVID. For example, did the execrable General Mark Milley usurp the Constitutional powers of the commander and chief?

I could go on.

You will note that my (very incomplete) list of potential subjects is limited to soi disant “civil servants,” i.e., bureaucrats, and is devoid of politicians. That is no accident. The most shocking fact about COVID policy is that it was almost entirely the creation of an American nomenklatura, with the supposed agents of self-government (including Donald Trump) playing at best a tertiary and certainly cowardly part.

Look at Birx. She arrogated to herself the powers to make momentous decisions, because. Because why? Well, because she could and no Constitutionally sanctioned individual stopped her. Indeed, they enabled her.

Restoration of true self-government requires Americans to know what a sham self-government has become.

If you think that lustration is unprecedented, well that’s not true. We have an example before our very eyes–the January Sixth Committee. Its purpose is clearly the lustration of Trump and Trump officials who allegedly attempted to undermine “our democracy.” So if the left shrieks in horror at the thought of Deborah Birx and Tony Fauci et al in the dock, well, sauce for the goose . . .

That said, the greatest service that the January Sixth Committee is performing is to show how NOT to proceed. It is transparently partisan. Worse, it lacks the procedural safeguards–specifically the ability to present evidence and witnesses, and cross-examine–that are necessary to ferret out the truth, uncover the lies, and protect the accused.

But we cannot allow those responsible for inflicting so much harm to escape unexamined and unscathed. If they are as righteous as they claim, they will emerge not merely unbowed, but elevated. If they are not, they deserve public obloquy. Or worse.

But it’s about more than exposing the culpable. It’s about showing how the system operates. How the unelected and unaccountable wield powers–awesome powers–not granted by the Constitution or laws. Until we know how the system operates, we cannot know what needs to be changed.

Bureaucratic usurpation is a fact of American life. COVID policy represents what is hopefully an extreme example of such usurpations, and hence can provide insights to the system that people will care about, and pay attention to. So it is not for the past–because sunk costs are sunk–but for the future the American people need to know what happened, who did it, and why.

So lustration. Sooner rather than later.

July 13, 2022

Hey, Janet, Here’s a Deal! Buy a Russian Toaster for $5 Mil, and Igor Will Throw in 100K Barrels of Oil for an Additional $5 Mil

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:06 pm

The Biden Better Than Yous’ most recent brain flash is to impose a price cap on Russian oil. We’re told (by an anonymous senior Treasury official–maybe the ex-economist Janet Yellen herself?) that if we don’t the price of oil could reach $140/bbl.

Oh thank you for thinking of how to save us!!!

Not so fast. That is based on a particular counterfactual: namely, a complete cutoff of Russian oil exports. That counterfactual is totally unrealistic.

Let’s compare to a more realistic alternative–current reality. Russia currently has to sell its barrels at a discount. But even the discounted price is well above the price cap being bruited about. So, if the plan works–which it won’t, for reasons I’ll get into momentarily–Russia would receive a lower price for its oil. Russia’s supply curve slopes up. Yes, it’s pretty steep, but it will export less if the proposed price cap were indeed binding. And if it exports less, world prices will rise. And since the demand curve is pretty steep too, the price rise will be appreciable.

In other words, compared to the current situation, this plan will raise prices if it works.

This is not complicated.

One could rationalize this as a way of reducing Russian oil revenues while having a relatively modest impact on prices. If Russian output was completely price inelastic, the cap would not reduce its output, and world prices would not rise, but Russia would receive less money to blow up Ukraine with.


Again . . . if the plan works.

This rosy scenario would mean that the plan is oil price neutral. But it would create a huge windfall for any entity that secures barrels at the capped price. That “windfall” is an economic rent, and there will be massive rent seeking to attempt to secure it. And rent seeking will undermine the operation of the plan.

It’s not as if this is a theoretical possibility. Remember why Marc Rich fled the US? Well, one reason was that he sought rents created by Jimmy Carter’s idiotic oil pricing scheme which created different categories of oil with different price caps. “Old” oil was subject to a price cap. “New” oil wasn’t. So enterprising rent seekers like M. Rich found ways to buy old oil and magically transform it into new oil, thereby making bank.

Substitute “Russian” for “Old” and you have Janet Yellen’s current plan. It creates tremendous incentives to evade, and will require tremendous resources to enforce. Uncle Sam no likey, and indicted Rich. But remember Marc died a free man in Switzerland.

Moreover, there are myriad ways to circumvent price controls.

If you are old enough, you’ll remember banks giving away toasters and other small appliances to depositors. Why? Because interest rates on deposits were capped at below market levels. But there was no rule against giving away toasters! So, in essence, interest was paid in toasters.

Think of the possibilities now! Buy a limited edition autographed portrait of Igor Sechin (the old Igor, with a mullet) for $5 million, and Rosneft will throw in 100,000 bbl of oil for $5 million more–a 50 percent discount off the current price, and compliant with the cap! It’s a bargain!

Or maybe buy a Russian toaster for $5 million, and get the 100kbbl for another $5 mil.

Warning: Do NOT accept sausages from Igor.

The bundling possibilities are endless. Side deals run through a labyrinth of shell companies are another way around this.

And don’t forget, one of the main ways that Russian oligarchs got rich in the 1990s was buying commodities at official Russian prices (well below world prices), illegally exporting them and selling at world prices, and then stashing the money overseas.

Meaning that they just have to dust off their old playbooks–they are pros at this. Only this time they will be circumventing foreign price caps instead of domestic ones. And they will have numerous eager accomplices in China, India, South America, and Africa.

And the Russians aren’t the only pros. Do you have any idea about all the invoicing scams in China to circumvent capital controls?

What’s the US going to do in response? Sanction everybody?

In sum, this is a plan that looks great on a whiteboard in economics class, but will not survive contact with the enemy. The enemy being reality.

A Streetwise Professor Commodities Podcast

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:55 pm

HC Group were kind enough to include me in their HC Insider podcast. Paul Chapman and I discussed systemic risk issues in commodity markets, which is a hot topic these days given the tumult in commodities since last fall. Central banks and regulators are paying closer attention to commodities now than they ever have.

Here’s a link to the Podcast. As you can see from the categories, we covered a lot of ground. Hope you find it informative.

July 8, 2022

Wage War on the Gateway Gas!

Filed under: Climate Change,Politics — cpirrong @ 10:21 am

It is indeed gratifying to see Dutch police beating, tear gassing, and even shooting at farmers (including 16 year olds) protesting the Fourth Reich’s righteous diktats on nitrogen. Serves them right!

Actually, the EU and its Dutch gauleiters are targeting nitrous oxide, another malign greenhouse gas, like carbon dioxide and dihydrogen monoxide (i.e, water, in vapor form). And of course sulfur dioxide is another horrible pollutant.

Do you see the problem here, ladies and gentlemen, ladygentlemen, and [insert your narcissistic self-identification here]? The common element–literally?

Of course you do. Oxygen! Oxygen is at the root of our existential climate crisis. Why should we attack the greenhouse gasses individually? Why not attack the root of the problem? Target its schwerpunkt? Yes, cut off well, the oxygen to the oxides. Problem solved!

We must therefore wage total war against this horrible gateway gas.

It’s up to you to do your part: don’t hold your breath waiting for politicians or polizei to do it for you.

Well, actually, holding your breath is your part: your turning oxygen into carbon dioxide is part of the problem. So save the planet: stop breathing. This will also solve the Dutch farmer problem: if you don’t breathe, you don’t eat–hence, no farmers and their nasty nitrogen!

You know your duty. Just do it.

July 4, 2022

Gettysburg: A Movie Out of Time

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:29 pm

Seeing as Friday-Sunday were the 159th anniversary of the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, I decided to watch the eponymous movie again. It’s long, so I broke up the watching in parts to match the three days, saving the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge climax for yesterday, 3 July.

I still rate the film as one of the best Civil War movies. Now admittedly, that’s a low bar. There aren’t a lot of great ones. Unlike WWII, Korea or Vietnam movies which can focus on a squad or other small group of men and build on the interpersonal dynamics of men under mortal threat, in the Civil War pretty much the smallest group was the company, which in turn was usually part of a regiment that operated as a unit. That doesn’t lend itself to the same cinematic treatment as say Sands of Iwo Jima or Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. Even WWII movies that focus on big battles, like The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far, tell the story through the actions of small groups of men.

This is why some of the better Civil War movies involve guerrilla warfare, which involves smaller groups, and which can also utilize tropes from Westerns: Confederate guerrilla bands in Missouri, for example, were the proto-outlaw gangs of the post-Civil War West.

So Gettysburg spends little time focused on the enlisted men: the one main enlisted character, Buster Kilrain, is an everyman foil to the intellectual Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Instead, most of the film’s main characters are generals–Buford, and especially Lee and Longstreet, with Hancock, Hood, Trimble and Stuart also getting attention. The private soldiers are parts of masses of men, sweeping forward across open fields or firing volleys from behind stone walls, not individuals.

Like the book on which it is based, The Killer Angels, the movie does a pretty good job of depicting Lee’s decision making, and the tension with Longstreet. It doesn’t take a Jubal Early Longstreet is the Devil approach, nor does it condemn Lee for fighting, and fighting the way he did on those three days. Yes, I would say that a viewer will lean towards sympathizing with Longstreet and questioning Lee’s judgment, but there is considerable basis in the historical record for that interpretation so I don’t take the depiction as unfair to Lee. And it gives Lee plenty of opportunity to explain himself and his objections to Longstreet’s contrary views. Both sides are presented fairly, and it’s really up to you to decide.

The main thing that struck me upon rewatching in 2022 is that the movie could not have been made today. Not a prayer in hell. And that does not speak well of us.

For one thing, the focus is on the Confederacy. John Buford is lionized in the first 45 minutes or so, and Chamberlain of course gets a lot of play, but the emphasis is clearly on the Confederate command and Lee’s decision making: Meade barely makes a cameo. The tragic figures are mainly Confederates, especially Lewis Armistead and Richard B. Garnett. During the remarkable Pickett’s charge scene, the Confederate advance is clearly the dramatic focus.

Nowadays, of course, the Confederacy and Confederates are synonymous with evil. Lee has been knocked off his pedestal–literally. In fact he has literally been knocked off of several pedestals in Richmond and Charlottesville and elsewhere. Monuments to Confederate enlisted men are under threat all over the South. The thought of treating Confederates at all sympathetically is an anathema.

The film and Killer Angels let the characters from both sides speak about their reasons for fighting. Confederate brigadier James L. Kemper expresses the Southern justification for secession to visiting Englishman Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, who has considerable sympathy for it. No doubt you will disagree with Kemper, but the movie presents the Southern view honestly, thereby allowing you to judge it on its merits without having to deal with an ideologically twisted, tendentious presentation of it: the only hint of directorial/authorial judgment is George Pickett’s clownish summary of the Southern cause. Similarly, when Thomas Chamberlain, Lawrence’s brother, converses with a captured private, the Southerner disclaims any racial motivation for his taking up arms, and Chamberlain takes him at his word: no way that would be allowed today.

Even a Northern view, expressed by Kilrain, would be verbotten 29 years after the film was released. Kilrain expresses what at the time was a conventional view among conservatives, and which many old school liberals held as well:

Chamberlain: What do you think of Negroes?

Kilrain: Well, if you mean the race… I don’t really know. This is not a thing to be ashamed of. The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time. To me, there was never any difference.

In this identitarian age, this is wrongthink that if expressed, puts one at risk of cancelation, loss of job, loss of friends, and perhaps even social death.

For in 2022 (Woke Year 7, at least), in contrast to 1993 (Clinton Year 1), judging by the group is a moral imperative. Judging individuals “one at a time” on their merits, independent of their racial/gender group is considered a sure sign of cis patriarchal white supremacism, and hence evil.

So watching the movie in 2022 made me sad. Not because watching Lewis Armistead’s torment at raising his hand against his best friend and getting shot down by his best friend’s men is sad, but because in 2022 America you are not allowed to find that sad and tragic and human, because Confederacy, and you are prohibited from sympathizing with Armistead as a man irrespective of the nature of the cause for which he perished. Because today a movie that reflects Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right”–which implicitly acknowledges that we might be wrong), as Gettysburg does, is currently outside the bounds of accepted civil discourse. Now charity is a fugitive, and malice is regnant.

And that is precisely why a second Civil War is not inconceivable today. Which is the saddest thing of all.

July 1, 2022

Get Ready: A Baleful Consequence of Inflation You’ve Heard Too Little About

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics — cpirrong @ 6:37 pm

Going away the most entertaining–and in some ways educational–experience of my graduate school days was when the great Sherwin Rosen was lecturing to the 0830 Econ 301 Price Theory course at Chicago the last time that inflation was about where it is now. Sherwin was talking about how relative prices are what really matters, and then startled a somewhat dozy class by slamming his fist into his palm and shouting: “And that’s the problem with inflation! It FUCKS UP relative prices.”

Sherwin Rosen

Since we are entering a new inflationary age, you should pay heed to Sherwin’s wisdom.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that due to transactions costs (interpreted broadly) not all goods and services are traded in auction markets or auction-like markets in which prices respond immediately to shocks, including nominal shocks. Prices (including wages/salaries) are set by contracts, including implicit/informal ones. Different contracts have different degrees of flexibility. Prices (and other terms) in some respond quickly, others not so much.

So when there is a substantial nominal shock (e.g., a surge in the money supply) which in a frictionless, classical world would not affect relative prices, some prices adjust more rapidly than others. This leads to changes in relative prices that are artifacts of the nominal shock, and which distort resource allocation.

Cantillon wrote about this issue in the 18th century, and it is also a component of Austrian business cycle theory. (Interestingly, unlike most at Chicago, Sherwin treated Austrian theory sympathetically. I imagine that his emphatic statement in class so many years ago can be traced to Austrian economics in some way.)

Some practical implications.

First, I expect to see a substantial surge in labor disputes as real wages (i.e., the relative price of labor) fall when some more flexible prices rise and nominal wages don’t. We are already seeing some indications of that (keep an eye on potential strikes at US ports and railroads).

Second, arguing along Coasean lines, I expect that since inflation makes it costlier to rely on the price system, there will be a substitution towards non-price methods of resource allocation, including vertical integration (in lieu of long term contracts where misalignment of prices leads to costly disputes between the parties), and the rationing mechanisms that Dennis Carlton (another former thesis committee member of yours truly) wrote about in the JLE in 1991. (There might be some shifts in the other direction too. Goods that are somewhat commoditized but are currently exchanged under formal or informal contracts with relatively inflexible prices might be amenable to being traded on auction- or auction-like platforms with more flexible prices.) (Dennis wrote many interesting things about allocation mechanisms, price rigidity, and so in in the late-80s early-90s.)

Third, contracts will become shorter in duration, and incorporate various indexing clauses (which mitigate, but do not eliminate, relative price distortions).

Fourth, inflation and the associated relative price volatility can be a boon for futures/derivatives markets. It is not a coincidence, comrades, that a major burst of growth in derivatives markets (both in size and scope) occurred at the time of the last major inflationary period.

This list is not exhaustive by any means. It’s just some things that immediately come to mind.

Any adjustment in contracting practices, or increased cost of using contractual practices that work well when relative prices are not subject to inflation-driven variation, is a real cost of inflation. Misallocations of resources that result when nominal shocks distort relative prices are also a real cost of inflation. Inflation will drive more conflict, more battles over rents, more contract disputes, and on and on and on.

As Sherwin forcefully expressed, inflation is anything but economically benign, something that microeconomists (like Sherwin) are sensitive too, but which macroeconomists too often ignore. (Back in the day, macro types thought that the only real cost of inflation was “shoe leather cost” due to people having to walk to the bank more often.)

I tweeted about this some weeks ago. In the interim, I’ve only seen one article discuss it: this one based on an interview with Ross McKitrick. Definitely worth a read, to get you prepared for what’s coming.

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