Streetwise Professor

January 5, 2019

Vox Populi v. Vox Domini Super Eos Electos

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:27 pm

For weeks France has been wracked by the “gilets jaunes” protests directed at President Emmanuel Macron. The protests had slackened recently, but today they flared up again, perhaps due to the arrest of a gilets janues leader. (Was this just stupidity, or does Macron want to stoke the protest? Dunno.)

The French protests represent yet another battle in the global war between the hoi polloi and the elite. The catalyst for the French protests was a quintessentially elitist policy initiative: a tax on motor fuel, with the stated purpose of combating climate change.

Even on its own terms the tax is stupid. Even assuming a very high temperature sensitivity to CO2, the reduction in emissions resulting from the tax would have a vanishingly small effect on global temperature. Furthermore, like most of Europe, French gas taxes are extremely high, and almost certainly far above the level that would efficiently address externalities arising from motor fuel consumption.

The protestors may understand that the tax does not make sense as a way of addressing climate change. But their interests are far more down-to-earth. This is another tax imposed on the most heavily taxed country in the OECD. Further, it falls most heavily on the rural population, and the working population, and has little impact on the metropolitan elites. It is, in a sense, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

With consummate tone-deafness, Macron galvanized the protestors with remarks that would make the fictional Marie Antoinette (“let them eat cake”) blush. Hey, if driving costs too much, just carpool! Or take the bus! Yeah. He actually said that (unlike Marie and the bit about the cake).

After the initial shock, Macron caved, and shelved the tax. But the protests continued, with varying degrees of violence around the country (e.g., torching toll booths). This is because the tax’s significance was more symbolic, relating to the excessive taxation in France, and the sneering indifference of the elite to the fate of non-elite France, which Macron has personified all too well. So, as is often the case in coordination games, once people became aware of each others’ dissatisfaction, the protests took on a life of their own even after the initial catalyst was removed.

Today the protestors gathered in front of the Paris Bourse, demanding Macron’s resignation. Surely, he won’t, but his evident unpopularity will hamstring his ability to govern for the remainder of his term.

The government response has been somewhat amusing. One tack was that police resources were inadequate to deal with both the protests and terrorism. “France Doesn’t Have Enough Cops.” That is, the government of the most heavily taxed advanced economy in the world cannot perform the primary duty of the state: to secure the safety and property of its citizens. So don’t protest, because that make it impossible to combat terrorists.

But of course they should be given more money and power.

In the United States, there is also an outcry against the president, but it is the inversion of the one in France. Whereas in France it is the ordinary people taking to the streets in opposition to the governing elite, in the US the governing elite is taking to the media and the bowels of the state to oppose Trump.

There are no widespread protests on the streets of the US (Antifa freaking out in Portland doesn’t count), and especially lacking are protests by ordinary citizens against Trump. And why should there be? For most Americans, the last two years have been pretty good insofar as bread-and-butter issues are concerned (as epitomized by yesterday’s job report, both on the number of jobs and wage growth). No, the frenzy in the US has focused on issues that ordinary Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about, but which drive the governing class into paroxysms of fury–e.g., alleged (but completely unproven) allegations of “collusion” between Trump and Putin/the Russians.

These allegations are merely useful cudgels with which to beat Trump. The fury of the governing class really stems from his running roughshod over their presumptions and privileges. He’s just not one of them. He insults them. He tramples their amour-propre. He does not worship their idols. Indeed, he trashes them. Icky people like him.

So whereas the ordinary French have taken to the streets, the governing class has taken to pulling the levers of its power–the FBI (even before the election), the American star chamber (aka the Mueller Investigation), incessant and hopelessly biased media coverage, and now, threats of impeaching “the motherfucker.” (To which I say–be my guest. Look at how well that worked out in 1998-99.) There are even those who have advocated a coup.

I daresay that the governing class in the US sees what is going on in Paris and other places in France, and shudders. It shows how deeply loathed the governing class is, and how a seemingly small spark can ignite a political firestorm against them. They have certainly questioned the protests’ legitimacy, at times in their desperation succumbing to the last refuge of the idiot–blaming it on the Russians. Case in point, the pathetically hilarious Max Boot (hey, Max, can you do a pushup?) who at one time pined for an American Macron, only to be subjected to ruthless–but completely warranted–ridicule when the French protests erupted. In a nauseating attempt to rationalize the complete popular repudiation of his man crush on Macron, Max insinuated that although the Russkies may not have caused the protests, they fanned the flames through their diabolically clever exploitation of social media.

The condescension here is palpable, and reflects a pattern that I’ve pointed out going back to 2015. Rather than acknowledging that widespread popular dissatisfaction with the elites–as epitomized by Brexit, the Trump election, various European elections, and now the protests in France–were due to repeated elite failure unsullied by any success, they add insult to injury by accusing their opponents of being stupid, unwitting pawns of their current bête noire.

It is indeed amazing to see that an incessant barrage of attacks from the governing classes have not moved the needle on Trump in the slightest. If anything, they have bound him and his supporters more tightly, because the latter recognize that an attack on Trump is just as much an attack on them.

The most common divide in polities around the developed world right now is between the governing and the governed. The self-conceived and self-congratulatory elite vs. the ordinary. France is just the most recent battleground. It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. The battle is becoming more intense because the objects of popular disdain refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for creating the conditions that have spurred popular discontent.

The same thing happened in France, 230 years ago. The nobility in the ancien regime stubbornly and righteously clung to their privileges, and their conviction in their own superiority. Worked out swell for them, right? But some people never learn.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 29, 2018

Is the Withdrawal From Syria a Bitter Pill for Jacksonians to Swallow? I Think Not

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:02 pm

I admire the work of Walter Russell Mead a great deal. I especially admire his identification of Jacksonians as a uniquely American political community, and his respectful and understanding treatment thereof, which is in stark contrast to the treatment given them by the sneering classes. I was therefore surprised by his recent column, which in my view completely misreads how Jacksonian America will respond to Trump’s decision to leave Syria and (perhaps–there are conflicting accounts) draw down forces in Afghanistan.

It’s fair to say that I was among the first (along with Mead) to identify Jacksonians as Trump’s core constituency, so I think I have some insight as to how they will react to his decision. And I think that Mead is off-base here:

That harmony may soon sour. Mr. Trump’s decisions on Syria and Afghanistan risk a rift between the president and his Jacksonian supporters and provide a way for some in the GOP to break with the president without losing their own populist credentials. The betrayal of the Kurds, the benefits to Iran of American withdrawal, the tilt toward an Islamist and anti-Israel Turkey, and the purrs of satisfaction emanating from the Kremlin are all bitter pills for Jacksonians to swallow.

Of the two wings of the GOP populist movement, the Jacksonians are the stronger and, from a political standpoint, the more essential. The GOP base is more hawkish than isolationist, and from jihadist terrorism to Russian and Chinese revisionism, today’s world is full of threats that alarm Jacksonian populists and lead them to support a strong military and a forward-leaning foreign policy.


Neoconservatives tried and failed to rally GOP foreign-policy hawks against Donald Trump. Should Jacksonians turn against him, they are likely to pose a much more formidable threat.

Where does Mead go wrong? Well, in part by forgetting some of the key attributes of Jacksonians that he identified about 25 years ago. One is the Jacksonian way of war. He noted that Jacksonians are reluctant to engage in foreign wars, but when they do they favor the massive application of brutal force to achieve rapid and total victory. Kill a lot of people, destroy a lot of stuff, and go home.

The wars in Syria and Afghanistan are the antithesis of this. Jacksonians were on board for the initial action in Afghanistan, oh so long ago. The US went in hard, employed all elements of its national power (except nuclear), and achieved what appeared to be a decisive and rapid victory. Then came 17 years of grinding, inconclusive combat. There is no prospect of a decisive outcome there. Similarly in Syria, the Jacksonian objective–destroying ISIS–has been largely achieved, and it is decidedly un-Jacksonian to get involved in a protracted Game of Thrones where there are no obvious good guys, and indeed, pretty much everybody is a bad guy by Jacksonian lights.

Insofar as allies are concerned, there is absolutely no cultural affinity between American allies in Syria or Afghanistan and Jacksonians, and as Mead noted, Jacksonianism is a peculiarly cultural, as opposed to intellectual, mindset. Further, as Mead also noted, Jacksonians despise corruption, and it is hard to imagine more corrupt societies and polities than Afghanistan and the Middle East. The tendency of our allies in both regions to turn their guns on American soldiers in “green on blue” attacks only confirms deep misgivings that our ostensible allies are not honorable people–and honor is a preeminent value among Jacksonians.

Jacksonians support wars that smite American enemies, and redeem American honor. Wars to build up nations with profoundly alien cultures that appear incapable of becoming stable polities, let alone ones that are grateful for American sacrifice on their behalf–not so much.

The Kurds may be something of an exception, but Jacksonian America has never shown much interest in them, despite the US’s long involvement with the Kurds in Iraq in particular. It is sad, but nonetheless true, that the US has sacrificed Kurdish interests on many occasions in the last 30 years. All without eliciting a peep from Jacksonian America. Why should now be any different?

Further, if they learn more about the Kurds, Jacksonians will realize that it is hardly a black-and-white picture. Yes, the Kurds have fought against ISIS, and fought well (as is their wont), but this is a matter of survival. But the long-running Kurdish fight with Turkey, led as it is by hard-core communists and socialists, and using as it does terrorist methods, will not garner sympathy from Jacksonians. They are not likely to be enamored with Erdogan’s Turkey either, but given the lack of a clear good guy that appeals to Jacksonian sympathies and sentiments, the likely response is to be to hell with them all, that’s not our fight.

Insofar as Iran is concerned, Trump has been sufficiently aggressive in going after the mullahs to counter any concern that he is soft on those who shout “death to America.” There are hardly purrs of satisfaction emanating from Tehran.

Similarly, Trump has been far more aggressive with respect to China, and even Russia, than his predecessors. Russian crowing about Syria stands in sharp contrast with their incessant bitching about everything else Trump has done, so despite the media’s and the Democrat’s and the anti-Trumpers’ insane claims that Trump is Putin’s pawn Jacksonians will not be fooled.

If anything, Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is focusing on the big adversaries where it matters, rather than frittering away American lives and treasure where it doesn’t. That is, they realize that Trump is hawkish where it counts, is not isolationist, and is working to rebuild the military. Against these big things, Syria is a trifling matter.

So, pace Dr. Mead, I don’t think that Trump need to have any concern that his most important constituency will find his recent decisions on Syria and (perhaps) Afghanistan a “bitter pill to swallow.” They are more likely to conclude that he has his priorities right. Furthermore, they are sure to notice that the people who are screaming the loudest about Trump’s decision are people they despise and who despise them in return. The louder that the Bill Kristols and Max Boots squeal, the more Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is doing the right thing.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 27, 2018

The Market Is Down! Round Up the Usual Suspects!

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,HFT — cpirrong @ 7:38 pm

Every time there is a major market selloff–like now–there is a Casablanca-like rush to round up the usual suspects. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blamed the Volcker Rule and HFT. This WSJ article blames algos (including HFT), but throws the kitchen sink in for good measure.

Truth be told, virtually every major market drop is unexplained at the time, and even well after, which only spurs the search for villains and scapegoats. There was no obvious spark for the Crash of ’87, and in the years since, many suspects have been named but none have been convicted. The same is true of the Crash of ’29. Perhaps the best effort–interesting, but not definitive–is George Bittlingmayer’s attribution of Black Tuesday to an unexpected shift in antitrust policy under the Hoover administration. But that came 65 years after the event!

The most recent selloff is no exception. The WSJ article lists a variety of bearish developments, but any such exercise smacks of post hoc, ergo propter hoc “reasoning.” Further, the article quotes various people who claim that the price decline is difficult to square with fundamental economic data–welcome to the club! The same is true for 1987, 1929, and other major declines. Recall Paul Samuelson’s aphorism: the stock market predicted 10 out of the last 5 recessions.

Part of the difficulty is that stock prices depend on expected cash flows, and expected returns, both of which can vary due to factors that are difficult to observe in public data. Asset pricing economists have a lot of theories of time varying expected returns–hinging on theories of time varying risk premia–none of which have strong empirical support. Modest changes in risk premia/expected returns can cause big valuation changes. Recent conditions (political/geopolitical risk, monetary policy changes) plausibly have affected risk premia, but our ability to map these relationships is virtually nonexistent, so at best we can formulate largely untestable hypotheses.

And untestable hypotheses are effectively speculations and opinions, and like certain body parts, everybody has one.

Given these realities, most major asset price movements are difficult to explain.

I vividly remember in the aftermath of the 1987 Crash, when I was a PhD student at Chicago. Gene Fama distributed a Mandelbrot article to all PhD students. The article presented a simple model in which long periods of price increases are followed by crashes. As I recall, the essence of the model was that if good news was received today, it was likely that there would be good news tomorrow, but if good news was not received today, the likelihood of receiving good news tomorrow was lower. In essence, it is a regime switching model, and a switch in from a good news regime to a bad news regime leads to a big valuation change, due to the transition probabilities.

Fama’s point in distributing the article was to emphasize that discontinuous changes in prices are not inconsistent with a “rational” market. Seemingly small fundamental shifts can lead to big price changes.

Again, a hypothesis–and a virtually untestable one.

What about blaming algos, a la Mnuchin and the WSJ? Well, blaming HFT–directly, anyways–makes no sense. Yes, HFT is programmed to respond to market signals, but it is negative feedback by nature. It tends to be stabilizing, not de-stabilizing.

There may be an indirect connection: HFT liquidity supply can dry up when order flow becomes toxic, and the decline in liquidity makes prices more sensitive to order flow, leading to larger price movements. The Flash Crash is a classic example of this. But that’s not unique to HFT. It is inherent to market making, and HFT basically puts what is in a market maker’s (e.g., old-time floor trader’s) synapses into code. Market makers pulling back–or shutting down altogether–occurred long before markets went electronic, and before anybody even dreamed of HFT.

If liquidity has declined–and the WSJ points to some limited evidence on this point–it is likely a response to market conditions, rather than a cause thereof. It’s something that occurs in almost every period of elevated volatility. It’s more of an effect of some common cause than an independent exogenous cause.

Further, by virtually every measure, the increasing automation in markets has led to greater liquidity. Much of the bitching–including in some quotes in the WSJ article–emanates from traditional liquidity suppliers who have lost out to more efficient competitors. Believe me, if order flow had become more toxic, these guys would have pulled back too, and probably more severely than HFT has done.

What can exacerbate market movements is positive feedback trading strategies. Portfolio insurance during the 1987 Crash is a classic example. The WSJ article points at algorithmic momentum trading strategies, and indeed these are positive feedback in nature. But they are not unique to algos: meatware implemented momentum/trend following strategies long before they were embedded in software. Momentum trading is something else that long predates the rise of the machines.

Several quotes in the WSJ article made me laugh. One was: “’Human beings tend not to react this fast and violently.’” Really? Heard of Black Monday? Black Tuesday? Silver Thursday? Black Friday? I’m sure there’s a Color Wednesday to fill in the week, but none comes to mind. Regardless, the point remains: human beings reacted rapidly and violently long before trading machines were even dreamt of.

Here’s another: “Today, when the computers start buying, everyone buys; when they sell, everyone sells.”

This is called “not an equilibrium.”

The bottom line is that the stock market sometimes decline substantially, without any obvious cause. Indeed, the cause(s) of some of the biggest, fastest drops remain elusive decades after they occurred. This is true across virtually every institutional and technological trading environment, making it less likely that any particular selloff is uniquely attributable to a change in technology. Furthermore, large market moves in the absence of any decisive event or piece of news is not inconsistent with market “rationality”, or due to some behavioral anomaly (which is inherently human, by the way).

But humans crave explanations for phenomena like big movements in the stock market, and this demand calls forth supply. That the explanations are for the most part untestable and hence not scientific only means that there is little check on this supply. Anybody can offer an explanation, which likely cannot be proven wrong. So why not? But if you understand that mechanism, you should also understand that you shouldn’t pay much attention.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 22, 2018

Given the Realm at Stake, Why Play This Game of Thrones?

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 2:57 pm

The most recent shrieking emanating from DC and its various satrapies is the result of Trump’s decision to exit Syria and draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that the US will leave there too in due course. The conventional wisdom is almost universally against him, and as usual, the conventional wisdom is flat wrong.

In evaluating any policy or operation, the first question to answer is: what is the objective? In Syria, is it a limited one–the defeat of the rump of ISIS? Or is it a more grandiose, geopolitical one–to control the outcome of the Syrian civil war and determine who rules there?

Trump has made it clear that his objective is limited and tactical. He has apparently decided that although ISIS has not been extirpated in Syria, it has been so attrited that its remaining enemies can contain it, or finish it off. And there is a Machiavellian aspect to that: why not let American adversaries, Russia and Iran, spend their blood and treasure dealing with the dead enders that remain? You wanted Syria, Vlad–have at it!

The conventional wisdom embraces the more grandiose objective. Perhaps this is purely self-aggrandizement, and lets them resume their college dorm games of Risk for real. Issues of motive aside, it is beyond cavil that those who want the US to remain in Syria, and indeed, to become more heavily involved there want to commit the country to being a player in a Game of Thrones that puts the fictional version to shame.

And that is why the conventional wisdom is wrong. For what does the survivor who sits on the throne rule over? A country that was a largely irrelevant shithole even before seven years of internecine warfare that utterly wrecked and largely depopulated a nation that was already pitifully poor and weak before the war began.

Congratulations Bashar! Congratulations Vladimir! Congratulations Ali! Behold the spoils of your victory! And indeed, spoiled is the right word for it.

And again, from a Machiavellian perspective, tell me why it isn’t smart for the US to let Russia and Iran plow resources into rebuilding a devastated nation? If they do so, these are resources they can’t use against the US elsewhere. Furthermore, even if Russia gains a presence in the country over the longer term, it is an isolated and completely unsupportable outpost that (a) could not provide a base for power projection in the event of a real great power struggle, and (b) could be cut off and destroyed in a trice by the US. Let the Russians put their very limited resources into a strategic dead end.

As for the Iranians, yes, their presence in Syria poses a challenge to Israel. But (a) I am highly confident that the Israelis can handle it, and (b) it’s far cheaper for the US to support their efforts to do so with material support for the Israeli military. And just as is the case for Russia, for Iran Syria would be utterly unsupportable in the event of a real confrontation between Iran and Israel.

The principle of economy of force–something that the policy “elite” in DC appears never to have heard of–applies here. One implication of the principle is that you should concentrate your resources in decisive sectors, and not fritter them away in peripheral ones. For the US, Syria is on the periphery of the periphery. In any geopolitical contest with Russia and Iran, our resources are far better deployed elsewhere.

What’s more, despite the obsession of the foreign policy elite with Russia and Iran, they are secondary challengers to the US. China is far more important, and poses a far more serious challenge. Throwing military resources into Syria is to waste them in a peripheral theater of a secondary conflict.

When I first read of Trump’s decision, I turned to a friend and said: “I wonder what this means for Afghanistan.” And indeed, hard on the heels of the Syria announcement the administration stated that it would draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that US involvement there would wind down fairly quickly.

All of the considerations that make Syria a strategic backwater for the US apply with greater force in Afghanistan. The country has spent over 17 years, the lives and bodies of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and Marines, and trillions of dollars on a country that is the poster child for shitholes. Yes, it was the refuge of a particular terrorist threat 17+ years ago. And yes, if we leave it will likely continue to be the cockpit of vicious civil war. Just like it has for the past two plus millennia. It was barely tractable for Alexander, and the British and Russia found it utterly intractable in their 19th and 20th century wars there. We’ve arguably done better, but not much. And again: what’s “winning,” and since the demise of the Silk Road, what in Afghanistan has been worth winning?

The war in Afghanistan has proved a sisyphean task. Sisyphus didn’t have a choice: the gods condemned him to roll the rock up the hill, only to watch it roll down again. The US has been engaged in that futile task by choice, and Trump has evidently decided that he doesn’t want to be Sisyphus anymore. (My skepticism about US involvement in Afghanistan also dates to years ago–as indicated by this post from almost exactly 9 years ago.)

One of the administration’s most important, and largely ignored, decisions has been to reorient US efforts away from conflicts against terrorism in isolated, poor, and peripheral places towards recapitalizing the military for peer conflict against China and Russia. This is the right choice, and long, long overdue. (I wrote a post in 2007 that expressed concerns about prioritizing anti-terror over conventional warfare capability.)

Alas, God will not restore the years the locusts have eaten in the Hindu Kush or on the Euphrates. But sunk costs are sunk. Looking to the future, the right strategic choice is to continue the pivot away from peripheral conflicts to focus on central ones.

And these costs are not purely monetary. Last night, due to a travel nightmare, I ended up returning to Houston on a flight that landed at 0230. On the plane were a half dozen young Marines heading home for the holidays. There were also two men, in their late-20s or early-30s, with prosthetic legs. They almost certainly lost them to IEDs in some godforsaken corner of the Middle East or Central Asia. With Trump’s decision in mind, I thought: what is the point of turning more young men like the fit and hearty 19 or 20 year old Marines into mutilated 30 year olds in places like Afghanistan and Syria? I certainly can’t see one.

I’m not a peacenick or a pacifist, by any means. But I understand the horrible cost of war, and fervently believe that it should only be spend on good causes that advance American interests. I cannot say with any conviction that this is the case in Syria, or in Afghanistan, 17 years after 911. Indeed, I can say the opposite with very strong conviction.

At the risk of stooping to ad hominem argument, I would make one more point. Look at the “elite” who is damning Trump’s decision in Syria. What great accomplishment–let alone accomplishments plural–can they take responsibility for? The last 27 years–at least–of American foreign policy has been an unbroken litany of bipartisan failure. The people who scream the loudest now were the architects of these failures. Not only have they not been held accountable, they do not even have the grace or maturity to admit their failures. Instead, they choose to damn someone who refuses to double down on them.

The biggest downside of Trump’s decision is that it apparently caused Secretary of Defense Mattis to resign. I hold General Mattis in the highest esteem, and believe that if he could no longer serve the president in good conscience, he did the right thing by resigning. But if he decided that Syria and Afghanistan were (metaphorically) the hills to die on, for the reasons outlined above I respectfully but strongly disagree.

My major regret at Mattis’ departure is again completely different than the conventional wisdom spouting elite’s. They lament the loss of an opposition voice within the administration. I cringe for reasons closely related to my reason for supporting a major pivot in US policy: I think that Mattis was the best person to oversee the reorientation of the Pentagon from counterinsurgency to main force conflict. We desperately need to improve the procurement process. We desperately need to focus on improving the quality and number of high end systems, and raising the availability of those systems we have: the operational availability of aircraft and combat units is shockingly low, and Mattis has prioritized increasing them. He has made progress, and I fear that a change at the Pentagon will put this progress, and the prospect for further progress, at risk.

Listening with dismay at the cacophony of criticism from the same old, failed, and tired “elite” reminds me of Einstein’s (alleged) definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. The “elite” is invested in the same thing, and changing the same thing is a not so implicit rebuke for their failures. Until they can explain–which I know they cannot–why doing the same thing has led to such wonderful outcomes in the past quarter century, they should STFU and let somebody else try something different.

Description

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 5, 2018

Judge Sullivan Channels SWP, and Vindicates Don Wilson and DRW

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Regulation — cpirrong @ 10:52 am
After two years of waiting after a trial, and five years since the filing of a complaint accusing them of manipulation, Don Wilson and his firm DRW have been smashingly vindicated by the decision of Judge Richard J. Sullivan (now on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals).

Since it’s been so long, and you have probably forgotten, the CFTC accused DRW and Wilson of manipulating IDEX swap futures by entering large numbers (well over 1000) of orders to buy the contract during the 15 minute window used to determine the daily settlement price.  These bids were an input into the settlement price determination, and the CFTC claimed that they were manipulative, and intended to “bang the close.”  The bids were above the contemporaneous prices in the OTC swap market.

The Defendants claimed that the bids were completely legitimate, and that they hoped that they would be executed because the contract was mispriced because of a fundamental difference between a cleared, marked-to-market, daily-margined futures contract and an uncleared swap.  The former has a “convexity bias” and the latter doesn’t.  DRW did some IDEX deals with MF Global and Jefferies at rates close to the OTC swap rate, which it thought were an arbitrage opportunity, and they wanted to do more.  And, of course, they  received margin inflows to the extent that the contract settlement price reflected the convexity effect: thus, to the extent that the bids moved the settlement price in that direction, they expedited the realization of the arbitrage profit.

Here was my take in September, 2013:

Basically, there’s an advantage to being short the futures compared to being short the swap.  If interest rates go up, the short futures position profits, and the short can invest the resulting variation margin inflow at the higher interest rate.  If interest rates go down, the short futures position loses, but the short can borrow to cover the margin call at a low interest rate.  The  swap short can’t play this game because the OTC swap is not marked-to-market.  This advantage of being short the future should lead to a difference between the futures yield and the swap yield.

DRW recognized this difference between the swap and the futures.  Hence, it did not enter quotes into the futures market that were equal to swap yields.  It entered quotes at a differential to the swap rate, to reflect the convexity adjustment.  IDC used these bids to determine the settlement price, and hence daily variation margin payments.  Thus, the settlement prices reflected the convexity adjustment.  Not 100 percent, because DRW was trying to make money arbing the market.  But the settlement prices were closer to fair value as a result of DRW’s quotes than they would have been otherwise.

CFTC apparently believes that the swap futures and the swaps are equivalent, and hence DRW should have been entering quotes equal to swap yields.  By entering quotes that differed from swap rates, DRW was distorting the settlement price, in the CFTC’s mind anyways.

Put prosaically, in a way that Gary Gensler (the lover of apple analogies) can understand, CFTC is alleging that apples and oranges are the same, and that if you bid or offer apples at a price different than the market price for oranges, you are manipulating.

Seriously.

The reality, of course, is that apples and oranges are different, and that it would be stupid, and perhaps manipulative, to quote apples at the market price for oranges.

Here’s Judge Sullivan’s analysis:

[t]here can be no dispute that a cleared interest rate swap contract is economically distinguishable from, and therefore not equivalent to, an uncleared interest rate swap, even when the two contracts otherwise have the same price point, duration, and notional amount.  Put another way, because there is some additional value to the long party . . . in a cleared swap that does not exist in an uncleared swap, the economic value of the two contracts are distinct.

Pretty much the same, but without the snark.

But Judge Sullivan’s ruling was not snark-free!  To the contrary:

It is not illegal to be smarter than your counterparties in a swap transaction, nor is it improper to understand a financial product better than the people who invented that product.

I also wrote:

In other words, DRW contributed to convergence of the settlement price to fair value relative to swaps.  Manipulative acts cause a divergence between the settlement price and fair value.

. . . .

In a sane world-or at least, in a world with a sane CFTC (an alternative universe, I know)-what DRW did would be called “arbitrage” and “contributing to price discovery and price efficiency.”

Judge Sullivan agreed: “Put simply, Defendants’ explanation of their bidding practices as contributing to price discovery in an illiquid market makes sense.”

Judge Sullivan also excoriated the CFTC and lambasted its case.  He blasted it for trying to read the artificial price element out of manipulation law (“artificial price” being one of four elements established in several cases, including inter alia Cargill v. Hardin, and more recently in the 2nd Circuit, in Amaranth–a case that was an expert in).  Relatedly, he slammed it for conflating intent and artificiality.  All of these criticisms were justified.

It is something of a mystery as to why the CFTC chose this case to make its stand on manipulation.  As I noted even before it was formally filed (my post was in response to DRW’s motion to enjoin the CFTC from filing a complaint) the case was fundamentally flawed–and that’s putting it kindly.  It was doomed to fail, but the CFTC pursued it with Ahab-like zeal, and pretty much suffered the same ignominious fate.

What will be the follow-on effects of this?  Well, for one thing, I wonder whether this will get the CFTC to re-think its taking manipulation cases to Federal court, rather than adjudicating them internally in front of agency ALJs.  For another, I wonder if this will make the CFTC more gun-shy at bringing major manipulation actions–even solid ones.  Losing a bad case should not be a deterrent in bringing good ones, but the spanking that Judge Sullivan delivered is likely to lead CFTC Enforcement–and the Commission–quite chary of running the risk of another one any time soon.  And since enforcement officials are strongly incentivized to, well, enforce, they will direct their energies elsewhere.  I would therefore not be surprised to see yet a further uptick in spoofing actions, an area where the Commission has been more successful.

In sum, the wheels of justice indeed ground slowly in this case, but in the end justice was done.  Don Wilson and DRW did nothing wrong, and the person who matters–Judge Sullivan–saw that and his decision demonstrates it clearly.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 3, 2018

Robert Mueller Deals More Collusion Crack to the Desperate Media Addicts

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:35 pm
Last Friday, the Russia collusion crack addicts took another hit, supplied by their main source, Robert Mueller.  The Special Counsel announced a plea deal with Michael Cohen, in which the disgraced Trump fixer admitted that he had lied to Congress about his contacts with Russia regarding a potential Trump business deal.  According to the plea, Cohen was reaching out to the Russians well into 2016, after the time when Trump’s nomination appeared likely.

OMG!!!! THIS IS IT! TRUMP IS DONE! COLLUSION HAS BEEN PROVED! HE WILL HAVE TO LEAVE OFFICE! TOP OF THE WORLD! THERE IS A GOD! I CAN SEE HIS FACE!

Dudes, put down the pipe and check into rehab. Though to be honest, there’s nothing that can fix your addiction.  You don’t have a monkey on your backs: you have Bushman.

As is almost always the case with these pipe dreams, the media hot take is 180 degrees from reality.  Rather than showing Trump’s deep connections with Russia, and his obligation to Putin, it shows the exact opposite. Namely, it demonstrates that even as late as 2016 Trump had absolutely NOTHING going on in Russia, but was still begging for the opportunity to talk about business opportunities. (Or at least, his flunkies were.)

Indeed, to indicate just how  how much nothing he had going on, Cohen sent an email with an offer to Putin’s PR flack, Dmitri Peskov.  But wait! It gets better!  Cohen didn’t even have Peskov’s private email address, so he sent it to the address used for general press inquiries.  And to add insult to injury Peskov didn’t respond.  In fact, nobody responded, not even an intern saying “Thank you for your inquiry.”

In other words, Cohen rated the same response as Peskov probably gave to Nigerian princes offering the opportunity to make a vast fortune, in exchange for a little help.  That being no response at all.  He might have even given offers from Nigerian princes more thought.

Just as the Trump Tower meeting demonstrate beyond cavil that Trump had no deep connections in Russia, this farce demonstrates that Trump was not even remotely a player.  To use a Rumsfeld category, this represents evidence of absence.  Overwhelming evidence. If Trump was in deep with Putin prior to January, 2016, one of his flunkies wouldn’t have been sending plaintive pleas to a public email address.  And if Putin was hot to collude, there would have been an answer.

It’s not that complicated.  But then again, I’m not on crack.

Further, to the extent that Trump encouraged the outreach: (a) it’s kind of embarrassing, and (b) it’s hardly the actions of a man who thought he had the remotest chance of becoming president.  In fact, it screams the opposite.

If Cohen and the other person involved in attempting to gin up Trump business in Russia were acting on their own hooks, it would suggest they didn’t rate The Boss’ prospects too highly either.

The worst thing about this entire affair is that Trump relied on low-lifes like Cohen and Sater.  This hardly speaks highly of him.

So yet again, Mueller has delivered the collusion junkies a short term high in the form of a guilty plea to a process crime that does not get him any closer to proving that Trump colluded with Putin (or anyone else in Russia), let alone proving that he committed a crime (collusion per se not being illegal).  Indeed, this latest  “bombshell” merely proves yet again that when it comes to Donald Trump and Russia, there’s no there there.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 30, 2018

The Most Tragic Day of a Tragic War

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 9:19 pm
The American Civil War was an extremely grim conflict from first to last, but few–if any–days of that war were as grim as 30 November, 1864.  On that bleak day, John Bell Hood launched his Confederate Army of Tennessee in an assault over 1.5 miles of open ground against a larger force of steely Union veterans behind strong entrenchments.  The result was predictable–to all but Hood, apparently: an epic slaughter of some of the finest infantry of that or any war.

The battle is known–to the extent it is known, which is too little–for the deaths of six Confederate generals, namely Cleburne (not of Texas, but for whom a town in the state is named because a brigade of Texans served under his command), Carter, Granbury (of Texas, and commander of that Texas brigade, for whom a Lone Star town is named), Strahl, Gist, and Adams.  Seven other brigade or division commanders were wounded.   No other battle took such a toll on general officers.

Officer casualties at Franklin were horrible, but the carnage in the ranks was almost as bad.  Many excellent formations were nearly obliterated.

Case in point: the storied Missouri Brigade.  Arguably the best combat unit in the western theater, and arguably of the entire war, the brigade went into the battle with 696 men, of whom 419 (over 60 percent) were rendered hors du combat.  53 out of 56 officers–think about that for a minute, 95 percent–went down.  Although a pathetic remnant of the brigade tramped on to Nashville, to participate in the defeat there, for all intents and purposes the finest unit in the Army of Tennessee was wrecked beyond repair.

In some respects it is invidious to single out a particular brigade: virtually every Confederate formation was ravaged.

Virtually nowhere did the Confederates penetrate the Union entrenchments. General Adams made it literally half-way: he attempted to leap his horse over the rampart, only to have his horse–and himself–riddled by bullets in the attempt.  Adams was found dead on his horse, which had its forelegs on the Union side of the parapet, and the hind legs on the Confederate side.

The one exception was in Cleburne’s and Brown’s sector near the Cotton Gin and Carter House.  A blunder had resulted in two small Federal brigades (Conrad’s and Lane’s) of Wagner’s IV Corps division remaining several hundred yards in front of the main Union line, holding a thinly-manned rudimentary set of earthworks.  These men were overwhelmed by the assault of the two Confederate divisions and they broke for the rear, as sensible men will.   A cry went up from the Confederate lines: “Shoot them in the back! Follow them into the works!” And they did.  The defenders of the main line were hesitant to fire because Lane’s and Conrad’s men were in the way, and thus the Confederates were largely spared from the withering volleys that stopped their comrades on their right and left in their tracks, allowing Cleburne’s and Brown’s men to surge over the works.

But only for a short while.  Wagner’s third brigade, under Emerson Opdyke (which contained the 2d Board of Trade regiment, the 88th Illinois, by the way), launched a frenzied counterattack that resulted in hand-to-hand fighting around the Carter House (which stands today, along with outbuildings that still exhibit hundreds of bullet holes).  Supported by troops that had been driven from the works (including the 1st Board of Trade Regiment, AKA the 72nd Illinois), Opdyke drove back the Confederates.

But not far.  The rebels congregated in the ditch on the outside of the Union lines.  Because that was the safest place: to recross the field would have been suicidal.

For the next several hours, in the darkness of the late-autumn day, the contending forces slaughtered each other at point-blank range.  General Strahl was shot handing loaded muskets to his men.  Carried to the rear, he was shot in the neck and fatally wounded in the field beyond the ditch.  Men would thrust their muskets over the parapet one-handed, and discharge them into the seething mass on the other side.  Soldiers launched bayoneted rifles like spears into the masses on the other side of the line. Some became frenzied, and jumped on top of the works, only to be shot down.  By late in the evening, the ditch in front of the works was a crawling mass of wounded men, intermixed with the dead.

There is nothing like it in the Civil War.  Pickett’s Charge was similar in terms of numbers, and ground crossed, and ultimate result, but when the Confederates were repulsed, they withdrew.  That fight did not drag on for hours at point-blank range.  The carnage at Franklin did.

In the end, exhaustion caused the fight to ebb away, just as the lives of hundreds of men were ebbing away.  The Union army had bought the time to rebuild the bridges over the Harpeth River necessary to continue their retreat to Nashville, and stole away in the night.  The Confederates were too tired, and too bloodied, even to notice, let alone to try to stop them.

This was truly one of the great tragedies of a War full of them.  In a conflict full of futile and pointless assaults, Franklin stands out for futility and pointlessness.  The Union army ended up exactly where it would have if the battle had never been fought.  But a third of the 23,000 Confederates who made the assault were killed (around 1750) or wounded (5500).  The casualty rates were even higher in Cleburne’s and Brown’s divisions.  60 of 100 regimental commanders went down.

The Federals suffered about 2400 casualties, of whom 1100 (primarily in Conrad’s and Lane’s brigades)  were captured.  Only battles like Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor resulted in a similar disproportionate loss on the contending sides.

So why did this tragedy occur?  It clearly is the responsibility of one man: John Bell Hood.  I agree with (the General’s distant relation) Stephen Hood’s debunking of Wiley Sword’s claim that Hood’s judgment was warped by his reliance on laudanum to ease the pain of his horrific wounds (an arm crippled at Gettysburg, a leg lost almost at the hip at Chickamauga).   Accounts make it clear that Hood was outraged that his subordinates had let the Union army escape a trap at Spring Hill (to the south of Franklin), and this almost certainly dominated his thinking and made an attack seem to be the only option.  It has also been argued that Hood wanted to punish his army for its failure at Spring Hill, but I tend to doubt this interpretation.  He was mad (“as wrathy as a rattlesnake” in the words of one witness) at seeing what he considered to be a Jacksonian stroke come to naught, almost certainly exhausted, and predisposed to aggressiveness.  A deadly combination for the hardy and valiant men under his command.

Franklin illustrates like few battles the incredible deadliness of veteran soldiers by that stage of the war.  Whereas the brutal losses of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns had made Army of the Potomac regiments shadows of their former selves, re-manned with draftees with dubious combat effectiveness (as illustrated by battles like Ream’s Station), western Union regiments had seen extensive combat experience, but still had a strong core of veteran soldiers.

The Army of Tennessee had suffered in battle after battle (Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, the battles around Atlanta) but although these losses led to shrunken ranks, those who remained were lethally effective and brave beyond measure.  Veterans that they were, they were certainly under no illusions about their prospects as they stepped off from Winstead Hill for the long trudge to the Union lines at Franklin.  But forlorn hope or no, they attacked with a will.  Awesome is the only word for it.

Unfortunately, the field where these men underwent their agonies is largely unpreserved.  All of the trenches are gone.  The site of the climax of the battle around the Cotton Gin was scarred by a Domino’s Pizza for years.  Fortunately, preservationists have acquired that property, razed the structures, and have created a small park there, including a monument to Cleburne.  The Carter House exists, and preservationists are painstakingly buying property around it in an attempt to create a larger commemorative space.  But most of the Union line to the right and left was covered by pleasant suburban houses years ago.

Carnton Plantation, where the bodies of 4 of the slain generals were laid out after the battle, is still exists.  A Confederate cemetery is located on the grounds–one of the largest at any Civil War battlefield.  The fields around Carnton, where the Confederate right stepped off, are undeveloped, but the target of their assault is suburbia.

Although you can’t experience Franklin in the same way as you can Antietam, or Chickamauga, or Shiloh, or Gettysburg, perhaps that’s for the best.  Bucolic scenes with granite monuments cannot possibly convey the experience of those men who were sacrificed without prospect or purpose 154 years ago today.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 29, 2018

The Incident in the Kerch Strait: Validating Existing Lines of Conflict, Rather Than Portending a Forcible Shift in Those Lines

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:45 pm
The big news over the weekend was the Russian firing on, ramming of, and seizure of several Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to transit the Kerch Strait.  Most of the news coverage has been hopelessly inept, especially with regards to the background and legalities.  This piece from Defense News is the most coherent and thorough that I’ve read.

My quick take is that given international maritime law and the 2003 Russia-Ukraine agreement on the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is right de jure–especially in light of the fact that no major nation acknowledges Russia’s seizure of Crimea.  But Russia has the upper hand de facto.  As the expression goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law.  Russia has seized possession of both sides of the Strait, and has the military force to enforce that possession.  And it did.

Russian justifications for their actions are risible.  But their explanations of so many actions are risible.  That may be the point: “we say this bullshit that you know is bullshit and we know is bullshit to let you know we don’t give a shit what you think.”

As the Defense News article states, Ukrainian naval vessels had transited the Kerch Strait in late-September without Russian reaction.  But this time it was different.

Why?

Presumably in part because the September foray embarrassed the Russians, who have been ratcheting up interference with civilian vessels since that happened.  Moreover, as many have suggested, Putin may be looking to bolster his patriotic bona fides.  He certainly can’t be doing it to attract international favor, because the opposite has happened.

This raises an interesting thought: if Putin really thinks he needs a domestic political boost so badly that he is willing to draw international opprobrium (note that Trump canceled a meeting with him at the G-20 over this) to get it, what does that say about his domestic political position? Or at least his concerns about it.  A tsar confident in his domestic standing wouldn’t feel it necessary to incur the cost of such a provocation.

Not that the cost is likely to be that high.  The Germans, in typical fashion, harrumphed about how horrible this is, but in the same breath said “Nordstream 2 is a go!”  But the episode probably makes any sanctions relief even less likely.

Revealed preference suggests two alternatives: (a) Putin figured that sanctions relief was extremely remote in any event, so the cost wasn’t that high, or (b) Putin actually doesn’t mind sanctions despite their evident toll on the Russian economy.  With regards to (b), note that sanctions often work to the advantage of those in power (e.g., Saddam, the Mullahs).  Pieces like this suggest that might be a real possibility.

What was Ukrainian president Poroshenko’s rationale?  He was likely appealing to his domestic audience, although a humiliating capture of a part of Ukraine’s pitiful remnant of a fleet hardly seems calculated to boost his re-election prospects.  Perhaps he was hoping for this very outcome, in the expectation that it would lead western countries to rally to Ukraine’s defense.  If so, he’s rather clueless.  It’s not as if the US and EU are unaware of Russia’s continuing predation against Ukraine: they’ve clearly acquiesced to the current status quo of frozen conflict, and the events in the Kerch Strait will not change that.  Poroshenko likely threw away a few ships and a couple of dozen sailors for nothing.

But in some respects, this is not surprising.  The Ukrainians are the Sovok Palestinians: they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and routinely self-inflict gaping wounds.

His declaration of martial law in parts of the country in the aftermath is highly weird, and raises questions about his real motives.

Does the incident portend a renewed Russian military assault on Ukraine?  I doubt it: it is more of an enforcement of existing redlines, rather than drawing new borders.  If the cost of bashing around a tugboat and a few minor combatants is bearable, the cost of a major move on the ground is a different matter altogether.

So the upshot is something like this.  The incident will not result in substantial increases in help for Ukraine.  It deepens and cements Russia’s isolation.  It is unlikely to portend a major escalation in the conflict.  In other words, it confirms and reinforces the status quo of a frozen conflict, rather than representing a new phase in the war.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

News for Barry: You Didn’t Build That

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics — cpirrong @ 9:59 am
Hard as it is to believe, it appears that Obama has become even more supercilious since his departure from the Oval Office.  All of his sneering grandiosity was on display during a visit to Houston.  (I hope you are sitting down for this: I didn’t attend!)

Being in Texas, Obama felt that he should be thanked for the dramatic growth in US oil production: “You wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I as president. That whole, suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas—that was me, people.”

I’m wracking my brain here, trying to recall something he said some years ago.  Oh yeah, I remember now: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

Barry: you definitely didn’t build that.  Yet you claim credit anyways.  You remind me of the rooster that believes the sun rises because he crows.

Long-time commenter Howard Roark noted to me on Twitter that the “you didn’t build it” remark was arguably the worst of his many execrable utterances.  That’s probably true, and he makes it all the worse by claiming credit for building something which he had less than bupkis to do with.

Obama also claimed credit for the economy’s recent performance.   He noted, in essence, that the first derivative in GDP was positive during his term, so that he is responsible for the first derivative being positive now.  Apparently the man who is so smart that he can apply the theory of relativity to constitutional law doesn’t understand second derivatives.  Economic growth has accelerated markedly under the Trump administration, and has achieved 3.5 percent growth, something that Obama dismissed as an impossibility when he was criticized for the anemic 1-2 percent growth rate in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis (when one would have expected growth at a rate above long term trend, not below). (I love the title of the linked paper, by the way.  Hilarious!)

But Obama was done.  After claiming credit for building everything, he shared his deep thoughts on identity politics:

“Which is why, by the way, when I hear people say they don’t like identity politics, I think it’s important to remember that identity politics doesn’t just apply when it’s black people or gay people or women,” Obama said. “The folks who really originated identity politics were the folks who said Three-Fifths Clause and all that stuff. That was identity politics … Jim Crow was identity politics. That’s where it started.”

He’s largely correct that Jim Crow and “all that stuff” was identity politics.  But rather than using this to show that identity politics is fundamentally wrong, he uses it to somehow validate its current incarnation.  It happened before, so you can’t criticize it now.  Two wrongs make a right.   You did it to us, so we get to do it to you.

Please go away.  So we can miss you.  Except that I won’t.  But go away anyways.

 

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 27, 2018

The Overlords of the Overton Window

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:28 pm
Facebook, YouTube, and in particular Twitter have been bingeing on banning of late.  The targets of these proscriptions have been anything but random: those who do not perform proskynesis before the current gods of the left.  This means that conservatives and libertarians are disproportionately affected, but even some who do not fall into those political categories are at risk.

The environment has become so hostile that at least one prominent figure, Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds, a law professor, of all things), has said “you can’t fire me, I quit!” and left Twitter.  Others less prominent have made similar decisions, and others have self-censored.

In essence, the operators of social media platforms present a Hobson’s Choice: You can censor yourself, or they will censor you.  The end result is the same: systemic biases against expression of certain political, religious, and socio-cultural opinions on the most widely used social media platforms. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are the Overlords of the Overton Window, and largely dictate the range of acceptable public discourse.

The Overton Window has always existed, but what is acceptable to express has heretofore been the result of a more decentralized, emergent process.  There was give-and-take.  There were actually multiple windows, and entry and exit were easier.  There was no centralized authority who could dictate what was acceptable: what was acceptable emerged.

What is disturbing, and positively Orwellian, about the Window today is the aggressive role of an extremely ideological, self-appointed set of censors who face little competition and who largely can control access to the means by which opinion is now expressed.  The centripetal force of virtual social networks give exceptional power to those who control access to those networks. By conditioning access on adherence to their views, the psychopaths who control these networks (and tell me honestly that you don’t believe that Zuckerberg and Dorsey are psychopaths) can coerce acceptance of their beliefs.  The technology of networks tends towards monopoly, and those who control these monopolies exercise disproportionate control over the expression of opinion, belief, and thought.

That is, traditionally the Overton Window was more consensual.  It is now increasingly the dictat of a narrow and insular set of individuals who by the whims of competition in network markets have achieved considerable power.

One of the most explicit examples of how this operates relates to the issue of transgenders–an issue you that probably was so obscure to you that it never penetrated your consciousness until recently.  Twitter has recently banned people–including someone who would best be described as a hard-core feminist–for challenging this newly decreed orthodoxy.  Twitter has just announced a policy of banning people who “misgender” (e.g., call individuals with testicles “he” though they identify as women) or “deadname” (e.g., use the name Robert to refer to someone born with testicles and named Robert by his parents, but who now identifies as Roberta).

This is revealing on several dimensions.  First, it reveals that social media has an Animal Farm-like hierarchy.  Female feminists are pretty high up on the hierarchy, but somewhere below transgenders.  So if a female feminist transgresses the transgender norm, she becomes a non-person.  Better stick to attacking those lower in the hierarchy, like straight white males!

Second, a marginal (and arguably minuscule, in terms of numbers) group is sanctified, and obeisance to that group becomes a litmus test for acceptance, and freedom from attack/banning.  Question the sanctified, and you are a non-person, and anathematized.

The marginal and extremely unconventional nature of the group is extremely important to the process.  Who cares if you affirm that ice cream is great?  But affirming that the extremely marginal and unusual are great does not come naturally, and indeed, it is costly to those of a more traditional bent.  It is also costly because it takes some effort to figure out what you are supposed to affirm, especially since it is outside your realm of experience.

But the cost is the point!  You have to pay the cost in order to avoid ostracism.  To demonstrate your fealty.  Bending the knee is deeply symbolic precisely because people naturally rebel against it.  Because it is psychically costly.  Those with strength of will are ostracized, and those made of softer stuff validate the beliefs of the overlords by worshipping their gods.

This is the way that cults operate.  Acquiescing to bizarre beliefs and engaging in bizarre rituals demonstrates fealty to the cult.

And don’t think that this will end when all users of Twitter and Facebook get their minds right and adopt Mark’s and Jack’s dictated opinions regarding transgenders (which are likely purely instrumental).  At such point, transgenders become totally useless.  Totally. New tests of loyalty and conformity will become necessary.  A new group will be sanctified.  I shudder to think what it will be, but I guarantee it will happen.  And at that time transgenders will become as irrelevant as past causes célèbres, e.g., gays.  (Don’t hear much about them anymore, do you? Old news.  Hence not useful.)

One often-heard viewpoint expressed by usually conservative and libertarian people is that this is, if not OK, something we have to accept because it is not the government that is imposing restrictions on freedom of expression.  These are private individuals in control of private entities.

This is seductive logic, but it is extremely defective because it ignores objective realities.

The concern about government restriction on freedom of speech is that it has a monopoly of force that it can use to overawe and oppress.  Further, government restrictions on speech reduce accountability of government, and therefore undermine checks on its power.

We should have similar grave concerns about private individuals and private enterprises that utilize their right to control access to near-monopoly platforms to overawe and oppress.  Further, these are intensely political entities whose controlling personalities desire to exercise political power, preferably with limited or no accountability.

The line between public and private that is often drawn here is completely imaginary.  No, these are not government entities.  But they are entities that desire to exercise great influence over the government, through various means. and to exercise control over individuals in ways governments have only fantasized about.  (The symbiosis between Google and the government of the PRC is not an accident, comrades.)

Checking their power is therefore completely consistent with a belief in the primacy of individual liberty.  Indeed, given the steady erosion in limits on government, shackling those who exert disproportionate influence on government and the political process is all the more vital to those who champion individual freedom.  (This is exactly why Facebook and Twitter and Google should be the LAST entities you want determining what is, and what is not, acceptable political speech, and what is fake news, and why the insistence by politicians that they do so is the bootleggers-and-baptists problem from hell.)

Those who care about individual liberty must strive to reduce the power to coerce, regardless of whether that coercive power is wielded by a government, or an individual, or a non-government entity.  Coercion is the thing.  Not the identity of the coercer.

Further, as I’ve noted several times before, the classical liberal/limited government tradition has recognized the dangers of private monopoly, and has constrained it through the imposition of open access and non-discrimination requirements.  If such requirements are justified for innkeepers and stagecoaches and railroads, they are more than justified for social media platforms, especially given the public goods nature (in the strict economics sense of the term) of their output–something that cannot be said of innkeepers and stagecoaches and railroads.

So, echoing Lenin, what is to be done?  One thing is clear: direct approaches are fruitless.  If Glenn Reynolds censors himself, that just saves Jack Dorsey the trouble.  The end result is the same: Jack wins.

A la Liddell-Hart, Fuller, or Sun-Tzu, an indirect approach is necessary. I’m not sure what that approach should be, but these military thinkers (no, that’s not always an oxymoron) have identified key aspects of it.  Identify the enemy’s center of gravity (and we should indeed view these people and companies as our entities).  Then don’t attack their strong points, but find their blind spots, their vulnerabilities, and strike at those.  Find the back door to the center of gravity.

And in thinking through the problem, don’t get hung up on false distinctions between public and private.  This is only to play into the hands of those who want to dominate you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

« Previous PageNext Page »

Powered by WordPress