Efficient Markets and Chaos

DJIA1900-2020
Semi-logarithmic plot of historic record of Dow Jones Industrial Average closing values from 1900-2020 plotted against an increasing exponential function to show chaotic oscillations.

18 March 2020 –Equities markets are not a zero-sum game (Fama, 1970). They are specifically designed to provide investors with a means of participating in companies’ business performance either directly through regular cash dividends, or indirectly through a secular increase in the market prices of the companies’ stock. The efficient market hypothesis (EMH), which postulates that stock prices reflect all available information, specifically addresses the stock-price-appreciation channel. EMH has three forms (Klock, & Bacon, 2014):

  • Weak-form EMH refers specifically to predictions based on past-price information;
  • Semi-strong form EMH includes use of all publicly available information;
  • Strong-form EMH includes all information, including private, company-confidential information.

This essay examines equities-market efficiency from the point of view of a model based on chaos theory (Gleick, 2008). The model envisions market-price movements as chaotic fluctuations around an equilibrium value determined by strong-form market efficiency (Chauhan, Chaturvedula, & Iyer, 2014). The next section shows how equities markets work as dynamical systems, and presents evidence that they are also chaotic. The third section describes how dynamical systems work in general. The fourth section shows how dynamical systems become chaotic. The conclusion ties up the argument’s various threads.

Stock-Market Dynamism

Once a stock is sold to the public, it can be traded between various investors at a strike price that is agreed upon ad hoc between buyers and sellers in a secondary market (Hayek, 1945). When one investor decides to sell stock in a given company, it increases the supply of that stock, exerting downward pressure on the strike price. Conversely, when another investor decides to buy that stock, it increases the demand, driving the strike price up. Interestingly, consummating the transaction decreases both supply and demand, and thus has no effect on the strike price. It is the intention to buy or sell the stock that affects the price. The market price is the strike price of the last transaction completed.

Successful firms grow in value over time, which is reflected in secular growth of the market price of their stocks. So, there exists an arbitrage strategy that has a high probability of a significant return: buy and hold. That is, buy equity in a well-run company, and hold it for a significant period of time, then sell. That, of course, is not what is meant by market efficiency (Chauhan, et al, 2014). Efficient market theory specifically concerns itself with returns in excess of such market returns (Fama, 1970).

Of course, if all investors were assured the market price would rise, no owners would be willing to sell, no transactions could occur, and the market would collapse. Similarly, if all investors were assured that the stock’s market price would fall, owners would be anxious to sell, but nobody would be willing to buy. Again, no transactions could occur, and the market would, again, collapse. Markets therefore actually work because of the dynamic tension created by uncertainty as to whether any given stock’s market price will rise or fall in the near future, making equities markets dynamical systems that move constantly (Hayek, 1945).

Fama (1970) concluded that on time scales longer than a day, the EMH appears to work. He found, however, evidence that on shorter time scales it was possible to use past-price information to obtain returns in excess of market returns, violating even weak-form efficiency. He concluded, however, that returns available on such short time scales were insufficient to cover transaction costs, upholding weak-form EMH. Technological improvements since 1970 have, however, drastically reduced costs for high volumes of very-short-timescale transactions, making high-frequency trading profitable (Baron, Brogaard, Hagströmer, & Kirilenko, 2019). Such short-time predictability and long-time unpredictability is a case of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, which Edward Lorentz discovered in 1961 to be one of the hallmarks of chaos (Gleick, 2008). Since 1970, considerable work has been published applying the science of chaotic systems to markets, especially the forex market (Bhattacharya, Bhattacharya, & Roychoudhury, 2017), which operates nearly identically to equities markets.

Dynamic Attraction

Chaos is a property of dynamical systems. Dynamical-systems theory generally concerns itself with the behavior of some quantitative variable representing the motion of a system in a phase space. In the case of a one-dimensional variable, such as the market price of a stock, the phase space is two dimensional, with the variable’s instantaneous value plotted along one axis, and its rate of change plotted along the other (Strogatz, 2015). At any given time, the variable’s value and rate of change determine the location in phase space of a phase point representing the system’s instantaneous state of motion. Over time, the phase point traces out a path, or trajectory, through phase space.

As a simple example illustrating dynamical-system features, take an unbalanced bicycle wheel rotating in a vertical plane (Strogatz, 2015). This system has only one moving part, the wheel. The stable equilibrium position for that system is to have the unbalanced weight hanging down directly below the axle. If the wheel is set rotating, the wheel’s speed increases as the weight approaches its equilibrium position, and decreases as it moves away. If the energy of motion is not too large, the wheel’s speed decreases until it stops, then starts rotating back toward the fixed equilibrium point, then slows again, stops, then rotates back. In the absence of friction, this oscillating motion continues ad infinitum. In phase space, the phase point’s trajectory is an elliptical orbit centered on an attractor located at the unbalanced weight’s equilibrium position and zero velocity. The ellipse’s size (semi-major axis) depends on the amount of energy in the motion. The more energy, the larger the orbit.

If, on the other hand, the wheel’s motion has too much energy, it carries the unbalanced weight over the top (Strogatz, 2015). The wheel then continues rotating in one direction, and the oscillation stops. In phase space, the phase point appears outside some elliptical boundary defined by how much energy it takes to drive the unbalanced weight over the top. That elliptical boundary defines the attractor’s basin of attraction.

Chaotic Attractors

To illustrate how a dynamic system can become chaotic requires a slightly more complicated example. The pitch-control system in an aircraft is particularly apropos equities markets. This system is a feedback control system with two moving parts: the pilot and aircraft (Efremov, Rodchenko, & Boris, 1996). In that system, the oscillation arises from a difference in the speed at which the aircraft reacts to control inputs, and the speed at which the pilot reacts in an effort to correct unintended aircraft movements. The pilot’s response typically lags the aircraft’s movement by a more-or-less fixed time. In such a case, there is always an oscillation frequency at which that time lag equals one oscillation period (i.e., time to complete one cycle). The aircraft’s nose then bobs up and down at that frequency, giving the aircraft a porpoising motion. Should the pilot try to control the porpoising, the oscillation only grows larger because the response still lags the motion by the same amount. This is called pilot induced oscillation (PIO), and it is a major nuisance for all feedback control systems.

PIO relates to stock-market behavior because there is always a lag between market-price movement and any given investor’s reaction to set a price based on it (Baron, Brogaard, Hagströmer, & Kirilenko, 2019). The time lag between intention and consummation of a trade will necessarily represent the period of some PIO-like oscillation. The fact that at any given time there are multiple investors (up to many thousands) driving market-price fluctuations at their own individual oscillation frequencies, determined by their individual reaction-time lags, makes the overall market a chaotic system with many closely spaced oscillation frequencies superposed on each other (Gleick, 2008).

This creates the possibility that a sophisticated arbitrageur may analyze the frequency spectrum of market fluctuations to find an oscillation pattern large enough (because it represents a large enough group of investors) and persistent enough to provide an opportunity for above-market returns using a contrarian strategy (Klock, & Bacon, 2014). Of course, applying the contrarian strategy damps the oscillation. If enough investors apply it, the oscillation disappears, restoring weak-form efficiency.

Conclusion

Basic market theory based on Hayek’s (1945) description assumes there is an equilibrium market price for any given product, which in the equity-market case is a company’s stock (Fama, 1970). Fundamental (i.e., strong-form efficient) considerations determine this equilibrium market price (Chauhan, et al, 2014). The equilibrium price identifies with the attractor of a chaotic system (Gleick, 2008; Strogatz, 2015). Multiple sources showing market fluctuations’ sensitive dependence on initial conditions serve to bolster this identification (Fama, 1970; Baron, Brogaard, et al, 2019; Bhattacharya, et al, 2017). PIO-like oscillations among a large group of investors provide a source for such market fluctuations (Efremov, et al, 1996).

References

Baron, M., Brogaard, J., Hagströmer, B., & Kirilenko, A. (2019). Risk and return in high-frequency trading. Journal of Financial & Quantitative Analysis, 54(3), 993–1024.

Bhattacharya, S. N., Bhattacharya, M., & Roychoudhury, B. (2017). Behavior of the foreign exchange rates of BRICs: Is it chaotic? Journal of Prediction Markets, 11(2), 1–18.

Chauhan, Y., Chaturvedula, C., & Iyer, V. (2014). Insider trading, market efficiency, and regulation. A literature review. Review of Finance & Banking, 6(1), 7–14.

Efremov, A. V., Rodchenko, V. V., & Boris, S. (1996). Investigation of Pilot Induced Oscillation Tendency and Prediction Criteria Development (No. SPC-94-4028). Moscow Inst of Aviation Technology (USSR).

Fama, E. (1970). Efficient capital markets: A review of theory and empirical work. The Journal of Finance, 25(2), 383-417.

Farazmand, A. (2003). Chaos and transformation theories: A theoretical analysis with implications for organization theory and public management. Public Organization Review, 3(4), 339-372.

Gleick, J. (2008). Chaos: Making a new science. New York, NY; Penguin Group.

Hayek, F. A. (1945). The use of knowledge in society. American Economic Review, 35(4), 519–530.

Klock, S. A., & Bacon, F. W. (2014). The January effect: A test of market efficiency. Journal of Business & Behavioral Sciences, 26(3), 32–42.

Strogatz, S. H. (2018). Nonlinear dynamics and chaos. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Fiat Money and the Problem of Foreign Exchange Rates

Money
Money exists as metadata representing equal amounts of credit and debit.

26 February 2020 – This essay is a transcription of a paper I wrote last week as part of my studies for a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) at Keiser University.

Developing a theory that quantitatively determines the rate of exchange between two fiat currencies has been a problem since the Song dynasty, when China’s Jurchen neighbors to the north figured out that they could emulate China’s Tang-dynasty innovation of printing fiat money on paper (Onge, 2017). With two currencies to exchange, some exchange rate was needed. This essay looks to Song-Dynasty economic history to find reasons why foreign exchange (forex) rates are so notoriously hard to predict. The analytical portion starts from the proposition that money itself is neutral (Patinkin & Steiger, 1989), and incorporates recently introduced ideas about money (de Soto, 2000; Masi, 2019), and concludes in favor of the interest rate approach for forex-rate prediction (Scott Hacker, Karlsson, & Månsson, 2012).

Song-Dynasty Economics

After the introduction of paper money, the Song Chinese quickly ran into the problem of inflation due to activities of rent seekers (Onge, 2017). Rent-seeking is an economics term that refers to attempts to garner income from non-productive activities, and has been around since at least the early days of agriculture (West, 2008). The Greek poet Hesiod complained about it in what has been called the first economics text, Works and Days, in which he said, “It is from work that men are rich in flocks and wealthy … if you work, it will readily come about that a workshy man will envy you as you become wealthy” (p. 46).

Repeated catastrophes arose for the Song Chinese after socialist economist Wang Anshi, prime minister from 1069 to 1076, taught officials that they could float government expenditures by simply cranking up their printing presses to flood the economy with fiat currency (Onge, 2017). Inflation exploded while productivity collapsed. The Jurchens took advantage of the situation by conquering the northern part of China’s empire. After they, too, destroyed their economy by succumbing to Wang’s bad advice, the Mongols came from the west to take over everything and confiscate the remaining wealth of the former Chinese Empire to fund their conquest of Eurasia.

Neutrality of Money

The proposition that money is neutral comes from a comment by John Stuart Mill, who, in 1871, wrote that “The relations of commodities to one another remain unaltered by money” (as cited in Patinkin & Steiger, 1989, p. 239). In other words, if a herdsman pays a farmer 50 cows as bride price for one of the farmer’s daughters, it makes no difference whether those 50 cows are worth 100 gold shekels, or 1,000, the wife is still worth 50 cows! One must always keep this proposition in mind when thinking about foreign exchange rates, and money in general. (Apologies for using a misogynistic example treating women as property, but we’re trying to drive home the difference between a thing and its monetary value.)

Another concept to keep in mind is Hernando de Soto’s (2000) epiphany that a house is just a shelter from the weather until it is secured by a property title. He envisioned that such things as titles inhabit what amounts to a separate universe parallel to the physical universe where the house resides. Borrowing a term from philosophy, one might call this a metaphysical universe made up of metadata that describes objects in the physical universe. de Soto’s idea was that existence of the property-title metadata turns the house into wealth that can become capital through the agency of beneficial ownership.

If one has beneficial ownership of a property title, one can encumber it by, for example, using it to secure a loan. One can then invest the funds derived from that loan into increased productive capacity of a business–back in the physical universe. Thus, the physical house is just an object, whereas the property title is capital (de Soto, 2000). It is the metaphysical capital that is transferable, not the physical property. In the transaction between the farmer and the herdsman above, what occurred was a swap between the two parties of de-Sotoan capital derived from beneficial ownership of the cattle and of the daughter, and it happened in the metaphysical universe.

What Is Money, Really?

Much of the confusion about forex rates arises from conflating capital and money. Masi (2019) speculated that money in circulation (e.g., M1) captures only half of what money really is. Borrowing concepts from both physics and double-entry bookkeeping, he equated money with a two-part conserved quantity he referred to as credit/debit. (Note that here the words “credit” and “debit” are not used strictly according to their bookkeeping definitions.) Credit arises in tandem with creation of an equal amount of debit. Thus, the net amount of money (equaling credit-minus-debit) is always the same: zero. A homeowner raising funds through a home-equity line of credit (HELOC) does not affect his or her total wealth. The transaction creates funds (credit) and debt (debit) in equal amounts. Similarly, a government putting money into circulation, whether by printing pieces of paper, or by making entries in a digital ledger, automatically increases the national debt.

Capital, on the other hand, arises, as de Soto (2000) explained, as metadata associated with property. The confusion comes from the fact that both capital and money are necessarily measured in the same units. While capital can increase through, say, building a house, or it can decrease by, for example, burning a house down, the amount of money (as credit/debit) can never change. It’s always a net zero.

The figure above shows how de Soto’s (2000) and Masi’s (2019) ideas combine. The cycle begins on the physical side with beneficial ownership of some property. On the metaphysical side, that beneficial ownership is represented by capital (i.e., property title). That capital can be used to secure a loan, which creates credit and debit in equal amounts. The beneficial owner is then free to invest the credit in beneficial ownership of a productive business back on the physical side. The business generates profits (e.g., inventory) that the owner retains as an increase in property.

The debit that was created along the way stays on the metaphysical side as an encumbrance on the total capital. The system is limited by the quantity of capital that can be encumbered, which limits the credit that can be created to fund continuing operations. The system grows through productivity of the business, which increases the property that can be represented by new capital, which can be encumbered by additional credit/debit creation, which can then fund more investment, and so forth. Note that the figure ignores, for simplicity, ongoing investment required to maintain the productive assets, and interest payments to service the debt.

Wang’s mismanagement strategy amounted to deficit spending–using a printing press to create credit/debit faster than the economy can generate profit to be turned into an increasing stock of capital (Onge, 2017). Eventually, the debt level rises to encumber the entire capital supply, at which point no new credit/debit can be created. Continued running of Wang’s printing press merely creates more fiat money to chase the same amount of goods: inflation. Thus, inflation arises from having the ratio of money creation divided by capital creation greater than one.

In Song China, investment collapsed due to emphasis on rent seeking, followed by collapsing productivity (Onge, 2017). Hyperinflation set in as the government cranked the printing presses just to cover national-debt service. Finally, hungry outsiders, seeing the situation, swooped in to seize the remaining productive assets. First it was the Jurchens, then the Mongols.

Forex and Hyperinflation

The Song Chinese quickly saw Wang’s mismanagement at work, and kicked him out of office (Onge, 2017). They, however, failed to correct the practices he’d introduced. Onge (2017) pointed out that China’s GDP per person at the start of the Song dynasty was greater than that of 21st-century Great Britain. Under Wang’s policies, decline set in around 1070–80, and GDP per person had fallen by 23% by 1120. Population growth changed to decline. Productivity cratered. Inflation turned to hyperinflation. The Jurchen, without the burden of Wang’s teachings, were slower to inflate their currency.

As Chinese inflation increased relative to that of the Jurchen, exchange rates between Jurchen and Chinese currencies changed rapidly. The Jurchen fiat currency became stronger relative to that of the Chinese. This tale illustrates how changes in forex rates follow relative inflation between currencies, and argues for using the interest rate approach to predict future equilibrium forex rates (Scott Hacker, et al., 2012).

Conclusion

Forex rates are free to fluctuate because money is neutral (Patinkin & Steiger, 1989). Viewing money as a conserved two-fluid metaphysical quantity (Masi, 2019) shows how a country’s supply of de-Sotoan capital constrains the money supply, and shows how an economy grows through profits from productive businesses (de Soto, 2000). It also explains inflation as an attempt to increase the money supply faster than the capital supply can grow. The mismatch of relative inflation affects equilibrium forex rates by increasing strength of one currency relative to another, and argues for the interest-rate approach to forex theory (Scott Hacker, et al., 2012).

References

de Soto, H. (2000). The mystery of capital. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Masi, C. G. (2019, June 19). The Fluidity of Money. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://cgmblog.com/2019/06/19/the-fluidity-of-money/

Onge, P. S. T. (2017). How paper money led to the Mongol conquest: Money and the collapse of Song China. The Independent Review, 22(2), 223-243.

Patinkin, D., & Steiger, O. (1989). In search of the “veil of money” and the “neutrality of money”: A note on the origin of terms. Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 91(1), 131.

Scott Hacker, R., Karlsson, H. K., & Månsson, K. (2012). The relationship between exchange rates and interest rate differentials: A wavelet approach. World Economy, 35(9), 1162–1185.

West, M. L. [Ed.] (2008). Hesiod: Theogony and works and days. Oxford, UK; Oxford University Press.

So, Tell Me What You Really Think!

Submarine missile launch
The government-funded project to develop Polaris, the first submarine-launched ICBM, transformed the way projects – and indeed most 21st-century businesses – are run. Image by Alexyz3d/Shutterstock

9 February 2020 – I’m about half way through a course on global economics at Keiser University, and one of this week’s assigned readings is a 2012 article by Argentine-American legal scholar Fernando R. Tesón discussing his views on the ethical basis of free trade. I was particularly struck by the wording of his conclusion section:

More often, trade barriers allow governments to transfer resources in favor of rent-seekers and other political parasites. … Developed countries deserve scorn for not opening their markets to products made by the world’s poor by protecting their inefficient industries, while ruling elites in developing nations deserve scorn for allowing bad institutions, including misguided protectionism. (p. 126)

This was unusually blunt in a scholarly article! Tesón, however, did a good job of making his case. Citing David Ricardo’s and Hecksher-Olin’s theories of comparative-advantage, He provided a well-thought-out, if impassioned, argument that trade barriers are misguided at best, and at worst unconscionable. Among the practices he heaped scorn upon are “tariffs, import licenses, export licenses, import quotas, subsidies [emphasis added], government procurement rules, sanitary rules, voluntary export restraints, local content requirements, national security requirements, and embargoes” (Tesón, 2012, p. 126).

Generally, that was a defensible list. All of those practices tend to slew market-based purchase decisions toward goods produced by firms lacking true competitive advantage. The case against subsidies, however, is not so simple. There are various reasons for creating subsidies and ways of applying them. Not all are counterproductive from an economic-development standpoint.

Stephen Redding, in a 1999 article entitled “Dynamic comparative advantage and the welfare effects of trade” pointed out that comparative advantage is actually a dynamic thing. That is, it varies with  time, and producers can, through appropriate investments, artificially create comparative advantages that are every bit as real as the comparative-advantage endowments that the earlier theorists described.

The original Ricardian model envisioned countries endowed with innate comparative advantages for producing some good(s) relative to producing the same good(s) in another country (Kang, 2018). Redding pointed out that a country’s productivity for manufacturing some good increases with time (experience) spent producing it. He posited that if the country’s competitors’ comparative advantage for producing that good is not great, it may be possible for the country to, through investing in or subsidizing development of an improved production process, overtake its competitors. In this way, Redding asserted, the relative competitive advantage/disadvantage situation may be reversed.

The counterargument to subsidizing such a project is that the subsidy has an opportunity cost in that the subsidy uses funds exacted from the country’s taxpayers to benefit one or more selected firms. Tesón’s position is that this would be an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds to benefit only a small subset of the country’s citizens. This is ipso facto unfair, hence his stigmatizing such a decision. The reductio ad absurdum rejoinder to this argument is that it leaves government powerless to effect economic development.

In a democracy, government decisions are assumed to have tacit acceptance by the whole population. Thus, an action by the government to support a small group developing a comparative advantage through a subsidy must be assumed to have a positive externality for the whole population.

If the government is an autocracy or oligarchy, there is no legitimate claim to fairness for any of its decisions, anyway, so the unfairness argument is moot.

There are thus conditions under which subsidizing firms or industries to develop enhanced productive capacity for some good make economic sense. Those conditions are as follows:

  1. Competitors’ comparative advantage is small enough that it can be overcome with a reasonable subsidy over a reasonable length of time;

  2. There is reason to expect the country will be able to maintain its improved comparative advantage situation after subsidies have been removed;

  3. Achieving a comparative advantage for production of that good will have ripple effects that will generate comparative advantage throughout the economy.

If and only if all of these conditions obtain is it reasonable to create a temporary subsidy.

An example of an inappropriate subsidy is that by the European Union for Airbus, which began with the company’s launch in 1970 to create an EU-based large civil aircraft (LCA) industry to compete with the U.S.-based Boeing Aircraft Company and continues today (European Commission, 6 October 2004). While this history indicates that item 1 on the list above was fulfilled (Airbus became an effective competitor for Boeing in the 1980s), and item 3 certainly was fulfilled, the fact that the subsidies continue today, half a century later, indicates that item 2 was not fulfilled.

On the other hand, the myriad salutary effects that came out of the Polaris missile program of the mid-20th Century shows that all three conditions were valid for that government-subsidized project (Engwall, 2012).

References

Engwall, M. (2012). PERT, Polaris, and the Realities of Project Execution. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business,.5(4), 595-616.

European Commission. (6 October 2004). EU – US Agreement on Large Civil Aircraft 1992: key facts and figures. (MEMO/04/232). Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/MEMO_04_232

Kang, M. (2018). Comparative advantage and strategic specialization. Review of International Economics, 26(1), 1–19.

Redding, S. (1999). Dynamic comparative advantage and the welfare effects of trade. Oxford Economic Papers, 51, 15-39.

Tesón, F.,R. (2012). Why free trade is required by justice. Social Philosophy & Policy, 29(1), 126-153.

The Chinese “Miracle”

Shanghai Skyline
Shanghai, China is the epicenter of the Chinese Miracle. Image by f11photo/Shutterstock

14 December 2019 – The following essay is a verbatim copy of one I recently posted to a Global Business discussion site in response to a link emailed to me by Dr. Tiffany Jordan of Keiser University.


Thank you, TJ, for sending along a link to Steve Sjuggerud’s documentary on Chinese development. History teaches us that 5,000 years ago, China was one of two (maybe three, if you count Central America) population centers (the other was Egypt) where folks independently invented civilization. You can’t go far wrong by betting on people that smart!

The second factor in this story is that one out of six human beings on this planet is Chinese. With that many really smart people let loose to work together, they’re bound to push the limits of economic development. The last time that happened anywhere was in the 18th century when steam technology was let loose among the newly liberated populations of England, North America, and Europe. The resulting Industrial Revolution was a similar game changer. People from the countryside flocked to the cities to make the most of revolutionary technology, and made vast piles of wealth in the process. Sound familiar?

So, what could go wrong? The known preference of the Chinese people for long power distance is what could go wrong (Hofstede, 1993). Since Qin Shi Huang patched together the Chinese Empire in 221 BCE (Shi, 2014), the country has had a nearly unbroken record of authoritarian rule, which is why, after all this time, they’re still stuck with “emerging nation” status. The latest period of lax central control started in the mid-1970s, when Mao Zedong lost control of his Marxist People’s Republic (PRC), and good things started happening in China.

China is home to two philosophies at opposing ends of the power-distance spectrum: Taoist egalitarianism and Confucian formality (Carnogurská, 2014). Taoists insist (among other things) on individual self-rule. Confucionists insist on respect for authority (Zhou, 2011). You can guess which philosophy Xi Jinping’s power-grabbing PRC favors! It is no accident that the slowing of China’s economic expansion immediately followed Xi’s re-institution of central authority. The stark contrast can be seen in the difference between the miracle on the Chinese mainland and the even-bigger miracle that has been playing out in Hong Kong.

I’m always ambivalent, however, about investing in the Chinese “miracle.” Back in the early 1990s I was asked to duplicate my success helping expand an American electronics publication into Europe by doing the same thing in China. With images from Tiananmen-Square events fresh in my mind, I declined. Unlike my corporate bosses, I just didn’t trust the PRC leadership to play nice. That corporation is now out of the publishing business! I’d done the same thing in the 1970s when I declined the last Shah of Iran’s invitation to take our Boston-based Physics Department to Tehran University–just before their revolution broke out. (Whew!)

China is not Iran, and Xi Jinping is not Mohammad Reza Shah. Pres. Xi likes leading the fastest-growing economy on the planet, but is facing his big test with current events in Hong Kong. Will he figure a way to defuse that uprising, or will his unenlightened cronies in Beijing push him into a disasterous reprise of Tiananmen-Square? I’m not jumping onto the Chinese bandwagon until I see the result.

References

Carnogurská, M. (2014). Xunzi, an ingeniously critical synthesist of Chinese philosophy of the pre-Qin period. Journal of Sino – Western Communications, 6(1), 3-25.

Hofstede, G. (1993). Cultural constraints in management theories. Executive, 7(1), 81–94.

Shi, J. (2014). Incorporating all for one: The first emperor’s tomb mound. Early China, 37(1), 359-391.

Zhou, H. (2011). Confucianism and the legalism: A model of the national strategy of governance in ancient China. Frontiers of Economics in China, 6(4), 616-637.

Making Successful Decisions

Project Inputs
External information about team attributes, group dynamics and organizational goals ultimately determine project success.

4 September 2019 – I’m in the early stages of a long-term research project for my Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) degree. Hopefully, this research will provide me with a dissertation project, but I don’t have to decide that for about a year. And, in the chaotic Universe in which we live a lot can, and will, happen in a year.

I might even learn something!

And, after learning something, I might end up changing the direction of my research. Then again, I might not. To again (as I did last week ) quote Winnie the Pooh: “You never can tell with bees!

No, this is not an appropriate forum for publishing academic research results. For that we need peer-reviewed scholarly journals. There are lots of them out there, and I plan on using them. Actually, if I’m gonna get the degree, I’m gonna have to use them!

This is, however, an appropriate forum for summarizing some of my research results for a wider audience, who might just have some passing interest in them. The questions I’m asking affect a whole lot of people. In fact, I dare say that they affect almost everyone. They certainly can affect everyone’s thinking as they approach teamwork at home and at work, as well as how they consider political candidates asking for their votes.

For example, a little over a year from now, you’re going to have the opportunity to vote for who you want running the United States Government’s Executive Branch as well as a few of the people you’ll hire (or re-hire) to run the Legislative Branch. Altogether, those guys form a fairly important decision-making team. A lot of folks have voiced disapprobation with how the people we’ve hired in the past have been doing those jobs. My research has implications for what questions you ask of the bozos who are going to be asking for your votes in the 2020 elections.

One of the likely candidates for President has shown in words and deeds over the past two years (actually over the past few decades, if you care to look that far into his past) that he likes to make decisions all by his lonesome. In other words, he likes to have a decision team numbering exactly one member: himself.

Those who have paid attention to this column (specifically the posting of 17 July) can easily compute the diversity score for a team like that. It’s exactly zero.

When looking at candidates for the Legislative Branch, you’ll likely encounter candidates who’re excessively proud to promise that they’ll consult that Presidential candidate’s whims regarding anything, and support whatever he tells them he wants. Folks who paid attention to that 17 July posting will recognize that attitude as one of the toxic group-dynamics phenomena that destroy a decision team’s diversity score. If we elect too many of them to Congress and we vote Bozo #1 back into the Presidency, we’ll end up with another four years of the effective diversity of the U.S. Government decision team being close to or exactly equal to zero.

Preliminary results from my research – looking at results published by other folks asking what diversity or lack thereof does to the results of projects they make decisions for – indicates that decision teams with zero effective diversity are dumber than a box of rocks. Nobody’s done the research needed to make that statement look anything like Universal Truth, but several researchers have looked at outcomes of a lot of projects. They’ve all found that more diverse teams do better.

Anyway, what this research project is all about is studying the effect of team-member diversity on decision-team success. For that to make sense, it’s important to define two things: diversity and success. Even more important is to make them measurable.

I’ve already posted about how to make both diversity and success measurable. On 17 July I posted a summary of how to quantify diversity. On 7 August I posted a summary of my research (so far) into quantifying project success as well. This week I’m posting a summary of how I plan to put it all together and finally get some answers about how diversity really affects project-development teams.

Methodology

What I’m hoping to do with this research is to validate three hypotheses. The main hypothesis is that diversity (as measured by the Gini-Simpson index outlined in the 17 July posting) correlates positively with project success (as measured by the critical success index outlined in the 7 August posting). A secondary hypothesis is that four toxic group-dynamic phenomena reduce a team’s ability to maximize project success. A third hypothesis is that there are additional unknown or unknowable factors that affect project success. The ultimate goal of this research is to estimate the relative importance of these factors as determinants of project success.

Understanding the methodology I plan to use begins with a description of the information flows within an archetypal development project. I then plan on conducting an online survey to gather data on real world projects in order to test the hypothesis that it is possible to determine a mathematical function that describes the relationship between diversity and project success, and to elucidate the shape of such a function if it exists. Finally, the data can help gauge the importance of group dynamics to team-decision quality.

The figure above schematically shows the information flows through a development project. External factors determine project attributes. Personal attributes, such as race, gender, and age combine with professional attributes, such as technical discipline (e.g., electronics or mechanical engineering) and work experience to determine raw team diversity. Those attributes combine with group dynamics to produce an effective team diversity. Effective diversity affects both project planning and project execution. Additional inputs from stakeholder goals and goals of the sponsoring enterprise also affect the project plans. Those plans, executed by the team, determine the results of project execution.

The proposed research will gather empirical data through an online survey of experienced project managers. Following the example of researchers van Riel, Semeijn, Hammedi, & Henseler (2011), I plan to invite members of the Project Management Institute (PMI) to complete an online survey form. Participants will be asked to provide information about two projects that they have been involved with in the past – one they consider to be successful and one that they consider less successful. This is to ensure that data collected includes a range of project outcomes.

There will be four parts to the survey. The first part will ask about the respondent and the organization sponsoring the project. The second will ask about the project team and especially probe the various dimensions of team diversity. The third will ask about goals expressed for the project both by stakeholders and the organization, and how well those goals were met. Finally, respondents will provide information about group dynamics that played out during project team meetings. Questions will be asked in a form similar to that used by van Riel, Semeijn, Hammedi, & Henseler (2011): Respondents will rate their agreement with statements on a five- or seven-step Likert scale.

The portions of the survey that will be of most importance will be the second and third parts. Those will provide data that can be aggregated into diversity and success indices. While privacy concerns will make masking identities of individuals, companies and projects important, it will be critical to preserve links between individual projects and data describing those project results.

This will allow creating a two-dimensional scatter plot with indices of team diversity and project success as independent and dependent variables respectively. Regression analysis of the scatter plot will reveal to what extent the data bear out the hypothesis that team diversity positively correlates with project success. Assuming this hypothesis is correct, analysis of deviations from the regression curve (n-way ANOVA) will reveal the importance of different group dynamics effects in reducing the quality of team decision making. Finally, I’ll need to do a residual analysis to gauge the importance of unknown factors and stochastic noise in the data.

Altogether this research will validate the three hypotheses listed above. It will also provide a standard methodology for researchers who wish to replicate the work in order to verify or extend it. Of course, validating the link between team diversity and decision-making success has broad implications for designing organizations for best performance in all arenas of human endeavor.

References

de Rond, M., & Miller, A. N. (2005). Publish or perish: Bane or boon of academic life? Journal of Management Inquiry, 14(4), 321-329.

van Riel, A., Semeijn, J., Hammedi, W., & Henseler, J. (2011). Technology-based service proposal screening and decision-making effectiveness. Management Decision, 49(5), 762-783.

You Want Me to Pay You … Why?

Fed Funds Rate goes negative
Negative rates burn wealth! ramcreations/Shutterstock

14 August 2019 – There’s been some hand wringing in the mass media recently about negative interest rates and what they mean. Before you can think about that, however, you have to know what negative rates are and how they actually work. Journalists Sam Goldfarb and Daniel Kruger pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article on Monday (8/12) that not so long ago negative interest rates were thought impossible.

Of course, negative interest rates were never really “impossible.” They used to be considered highly unlikely, however, because nobody in their right mind would be willing to pay someone else for taking money off their hands. I mean, would you do it?

But, the world has changed drastically over the past, say, quarter century. Today, so-called “investors” think nothing of buying stock in giant technology companies, such as Tesla, Inc. that have never made a dime of profit and have no prospects of doing so in the near future. Such “investors” are effectively giving away their money at negative interest rates.

Buying stock in an unprofitable enterprise makes sense if you believe that the enterprise will eventually become profitable. Or, and this is a commonly applied strategy, you believe the market value of the stock will rise in the future, when you can sell it to somebody else at a profit. This latter strategy is known as the “bigger fool theory.” This theory holds that doing something that stupid is a good idea as long as you believe you’ll be able to find a “bigger fool” to take your stock in the deadbeat enterprise off your hands before it collapses into bankruptcy.

That all works quite nicely for stocks, but makes less sense for bonds, which is what folks are talking about when they wring their hands over negative-interest-rate policy by central banks. The difference is that in the bond market, there really is no underlying enterprise ownership that might turn a profit in the future. A bond is just an agreement between a lender and a debtor.

This is where the two-fluid model of money I trotted out in this column on 19 June helps paint an understandable picture. Recall from that column that money appears from nowhere when two parties, a lender and a debtor, execute a loan contract. The cash (known as “credit” in the model) goes to the debtor while an equal amount of debt goes to the lender. Those are the two paired “fluids” that make up what we call “money,” as I explain in that column.

Fed Funds Rate

The Federal Reserve Bank is a system of banks run by the U.S. Treasury Department. One of the system’s functions is to ensure the U.S. money supply by holding excess money for other banks who have more than they need at the moment, and loaning it out to banks in need of cash. By setting the interest rate (the so-called Fed Funds Rate) at which these transactions occur, the Fed controls how much money flows through the economy. Lowering the rate allows money to flow faster. Raising it slows things down.

Actual paper money represents only a tiny fraction of U.S. currency. In actual fact, money is created whenever anybody borrows anything from anybody, even your average loan shark. The Federal Reserve System is how the U.S. Federal Government attempts to keep the whole mess under control.

By the way, the problem with cryptocurrencies is that they attempt to usurp that control, but that’s a rant for another day.

Think of money as blood coursing through the country’s economic body, carrying oxygen to the cells (you and me and General Motors) that they use to create wealth. That’s when the problem with negative interest rates shows up. When interest rates are positive, it means wealth is being created. When they’re negative, well you can imagine what that means!

Negative interest rates mean folks are burning up wealth to keep the economic ship sailing along. If you keep burning up wealth instead of creating it, eventually you go broke. Think Venezuela, or, on a smaller scale, Puerto Rico.

Negative Interest

Okay, so how do negative interest rates actually work?

A loan contract, or bond, is an agreement between a lender and a debtor to create some money (the two fluids, again). The idea behind any contract is that everybody gets something out of it that they want. In a conventional positive-interest-rate bond, the debtor gets credit that they can use to create wealth, like, maybe building a house. The lender gets a share in that wealth in the form of interest payments over and above the cash needed to retire the loan (as in pay back the principal).

Bonds are sold in an auction process. That is, the issuer offers to sell the bond for a face value (the principal) and pay it back plus interest at a certain rate in the future. In the real world, however, folks buy such bonds at a market price, which may or may not be equal to the principal.

If the market price is lower than the principal, then the effective rate of interest will be higher than the offered rate because what the actual market value is doesn’t affect the pay-back terms written on the loan agreement. If the market price is higher than the principal, the effective rate will be lower than the offered rate. If the market price is too much higher than the principal, the repayment won’t be enough to cover it, and the effective rate will be negative.

Everyone who’s ever participated in an auction knows that there are always amateurs around (or supposed professionals whose glands get the better of their brains so they act like amateurs) who get caught up in the auction dynamics and agree to pay more than they should for what’s offered. When it’s a bond auction, that’s how you get a negative interest rate by accident. Folks agree to pay up front more than they get back as principal plus interest for the loan.

Negative Interest Rate Policy (NIRP) is when a central bank (such as the U.S. Federal Reserve) runs out of options to control economic activity, and publicly says it’s going to borrow money from its customers at negative rates. The Fed’s customers (the large banks that deposit their excess cash with the Fed) have to put their excess cash somewhere, so they get stuck making the negative-interest-rate loans. That means they’re burning up the wealth their customers share with them when they pay their loans back.

If you’re the richest country in the world, you can get away with burning up wealth faster than you create it for a very long time. If, on the other hand, you’re, say, Puerto Rico, you can’t.

The Free Press, and How You Get It

Free Press Image
The right to sit in a cafe, drinking coffee and reading newspapers is wasted unless that press is free! By Impact Photography/Shutterstock

10 July 2019 – ‘Way back in the late 1960s I spent an entire day as a news hawker. That is, I stood on street corners shouting things at passersby intended to induce them to by copies of a newspaper I was selling. The newspaper was something called The L.A. Free Press. It was produced and sold in Los Angeles, and the street corners I stood on had names like “West Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset.”

I’d recently transplanted from Boston, Massachusetts to the Los Angeles, California area and had never heard of The L.A. Free Press before. A small gang I’d been hanging out with that morning heard that I had a driver’s license on me, and knew that we could use it as collateral to get a great whacking stack of those newspapers to sell at a profit.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

I initially thought the newspaper copies were somehow free for the taking (as so many local papers are today). I was quickly disabused of that idea because I got pretty decent money for buying copies of it at a low price, then selling them on street corners for a higher price. It clearly wasn’t that kind of free!

Then, I imagined that was (like so many thin publications of the time) some hippy-dippy propaganda rag full of free-love manifestos and ads for beatnik-poetry venues. Being a veteran hippy-beatnik-biker, that was okay with me. I didn’t care as long as there was coin to be had. I wasn’t one of Donovan Leitch’s “beatniks out to make it rich,” but I was interested in coming up with lunch money!

The main headline on the first page of the copies we got in exchange for a mortgage on my driver’s license sounded like a local-interest story that I was not embarrased to wave at potential newsprint buyers, so it didn’t seem to be some hippy-dippy propaganda rag, either. The papers actually sold pretty well!

I needed the money (being dead broke at the time), so I swallowed my pride and did the job. I kept the last copy from my stack, however, to read when I got back to wherever I was sleeping that night.

By the time I’d finished reading the thing I’d realized why the publication was called The L.A. Free Press. It was an independent newspaper founded by a small group dedicated to investigative journalism with nobody to answer to but their readers. I became proud to be working with them.

If I’d been smart and ambitious I would have tried to get a job with them writing copy. After all, part of my reason for relocating was to find some kind of writing gig. But, as is typical with homeless eighteen-year-olds living on the streets, I was more frightened and depressed than smart and ambitious. The next day I moved on to doing something that turned out to be another stupid career move.

Sometimes depression is not a sign of mental illness, but a rational response to the way your life is going.

What I learned from that episode of my misspent youth (What’s the point of misspending your youth if you’re not going to learn something from it?) was what intellectuals mean when they talk about “the Free Press.” It’s not just some empty slogan you hear once in a while on CNN. It’s how we, as citizens of a free country, keep track of what’s going on outside of our individual hovels.

The difference between we citizens of a free country and downtrodden medieval serfs slaving to feed their “betters,” is that we have some say in what goes on outside our hovels. We can’t affect things in a way that’s good for us and the people we care about unless we find out what’s actually going on out there. For that we hire independent journalists who have at least half a brain and make it their business to find out for us.

We pay them a living wage and (if we’ve got at least half a brain ourselves) listen to what they tell us is happening. The Free Press is not, as some dishonest demagogues try to tell us, “the enemy of the people,” but a necessary part of a free democratic society.

For this reason, the journalistic profession has been called “The Fourth Estate” since the Enlightenment. Originally, the term was meant to indicate that a Free Press was available – in addition to the three original estates of clergy, aristocracy and commoners – whose writ was to frame the debate upon which society made common decisions. Later political systems still had (usually) three competing authorities explicitly charged with governing, along with a Free Press implicitly charged with framing the debate about what to do next.

In the United States, our Constitution explicitly delineates a government made up of three co-equal branches: Legislature, Court System, and Executive. The Founding Fathers (If that’s not a sexist term, I don’t know what is!) realized they’d forgotten the Free Press in the original document when they couldn’t get anybody to ratify (agree to) the thing without immediately amending it to include a Free Press (as well as the rest of the Bill of Rights).

The Free Press was considered so important that it was included in the first amendment.

Before anybody gets the idea that I’m criticizing the Founding Fathers as incompetent, I want to point out that this error just goes to prove that those guys were human, and humans make mistakes. Specifically, they were exceedingly bright guys to whom the need for a vibrant Free Press was so obvious that they forgot to mention it. The first ten Amendments – the Bill of Rights – should be seen as an “Oh, Shit!” moment.

“How could we have left that out?”

Having a Free Press, and making good use of it, is the first thing you have to have to set up a democracy. In a sense, it’s not the “fourth” estate, but the first. All the rest is afterthought. It’s bells and whistles designed to be the mechanical parts of a democracy. They’re of no value whatsoever without a Free Press.

On the other hand, once you have a functioning Free Press and a society that makes good use of it, the rest of the bells and whistles will inevitably follow. In that sense, the Free Press is not an afterthought or a result of democracy. Instead, it’s the essence of democracy. That’s why the first thing would-be authoritarians seek to eliminate is the Free Press.

The ASEAN Community

ASEAN Summer 2019 Logo
The 34th Asean Summit Bangkok: Advancing Partnership For Sustainability, 23 June 2019

Apologies to all the folks whose words I’ve expropriated for this piece with insufficient attribution – mostly from Wikipedia and ASEAN sources. It’s already taken three days to piece this essay together and I’m trying to get it published while the dateline is still good! Just ONE more editing pass.

26 June 2019 – This is an appropriate time to visit a little-known and -acknowledged regional international community being developed in Southeast Asia: ASEAN. Last Sunday (23 June 2019) marked the 34th meeting of the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Thailand

ASEAN was established on 8 August 1967 with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) by the five founding member states, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Five additional member states – Brunei Darussalam (1984), Viet Nam (1995), Lao PDR and Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999) – joined later to complete the ten member states of ASEAN today. An eleventh nation, Timor-Leste (in English: East Timor) has applied for membership.

The creation of ASEAN was originally motivated by a common fear of communism among the original five founding member states. ASEAN achieved greater cohesion in the mid-1970s following a change in the international balance of power after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The region’s dynamic economic growth during the 1970s strengthened the organization, enabling ASEAN to adopt a unified response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979.

ASEAN’s first summit meeting, held in Bali, Indonesia in 1976, resulted in an agreement on several industrial projects and the signing of a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and a Declaration of Concord.

The end of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s allowed ASEAN countries to exercise greater political independence in the region, and in the 1990s ASEAN emerged as a leading voice on regional trade and security issues.

ASEAN has a total population of 642 million people, which is nearly double that of the United States (327 million), and twenty-five percent larger than that of the European Union (513 million). Its average annual income per person, however, is only $4,308.00, putting it between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Mauritania in the Western Sahara as far as average wealth per person is concerned. That means its people still have a long way to go! Its GDP growth rate, however, is 5.3% per annum, which is comparable to that of Egypt or Pakistan and ahead of the average for even emerging and developing countries.

Why Do We Care?

Why should Americans care about ASEAN?

First, it has aspirations to be a regional intergovernmental organization similar to the European Union in an region where the United States has economic and political interests. Their charter specifically calls for adherence to basic principles in line with those of the United States and other Western democracies. Notably the ASEAN charter specifically calls for adherence to democratic principles and maintaining the region as a nuclear-free zone.

Second, as a large and (aspirationally) politically and economically cohesive regional intergovernmental organization, ASEAN can provide a large and (again aspirationally) economically powerful ally in Southeast Asia to counterbalance Chinese efforts to extend its hegemony in the region. Especially, their actions reveal a desire to cooperate with the United States and its allies. For example, the charter refers in numerous places to working with United Nations principles and protocols, and establishes English as the ASEAN working language.

Organization

The ASEAN Community is comprised of three “pillars:” the ASEAN Political-Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. Each pillar has its own Blueprint, and, together with the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Strategic Framework and IAI Work Plan Phase II (2009-2015), they form the Roadmap for an ASEAN Community.

The figure below shows ASEAN’s top organization levels. At the top is the ASEAN Summit, comprised of the heads of state or government of the member states. By charter, they meet together twice a year, hosted by the member state holding the ASEAN Chairmanship, which cycles through the member states. At present, that is Thailand (Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha), so the latest meeting was held on 23 June 2019 in the Thai capital, Bangkok.

ASEAN Org Chart
ASEAN Organizational Structure.

At the next level, ASEAN is divided into three Community Councils that represent the three pillars of ASEAN activity:

  1. The ASEAN Political-Security Community Council

  2. The ASEAN Economic Community Council

  3. The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Council

Each of the three Community Councils has their own makeup and sphere of activity. The ASEAN Coordinating Council, for example, comprises the Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN member states and meets at least twice a year, not only to prepare the meetings of the ASEAN Summit, but to undertake other tasks provided for in the Charter, or for such other functions as may be assigned by the ASEAN Summit. For example, the Coordinating Council coordinates implementation of agreements and decisions of the ASEAN Summit.

In order to realize the objectives of each of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, each ASEAN Community Council ensures the implementation of the relevant decisions of the ASEAN Summit; coordinates the work of the different sectors under its purview; ensures implementation of Summit decisions on issues that cut across the other Community Councils; and submits reports and recommendations to the ASEAN Summit on matters under its purview.

Each member state designates its own national representatives for each ASEAN Community Council. In addition, each ASEAN member state establishes an ASEAN National Secretariat that serves as a national focal point, the repository of information on all ASEAN matters at the national level, coordinates the implementation of ASEAN decisions at the national level, coordinates and supports the national preparations of ASEAN meetings, promotes ASEAN identity and awareness at the national level, and contributes to ASEAN community building.

Political-Security Community

ASEAN member states pledge to rely exclusively on peaceful processes in the settlement of intra-regional differences and with regard to their security. They are fundamentally linked to one another and bound by geographic location, as well as by a common vision and objectives.

The ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) aims to ensure that countries in the region live at peace with one another and with the world in a just, democratic and harmonious environment. The APSC Blueprint envisages ASEAN to be a rules-based community of shared values and norms; a cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region with shared responsibility for comprehensive security; and a dynamic and outward-looking region in an increasingly integrated and interdependent world. The APSC’s normative activities include: political development; shaping and sharing of norms; conflict prevention; conflict resolution; post-conflict peace building; and implementing mechanisms.

Economic Community

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) has a Consolidated Strategic Action Plan (CSAP) that includes strategic measures in the AEC Blueprint 2025 that takes into account the relevant sector work plans, and is reviewed periodically to account for developments in each sector.

The inaugural issue of the ASEAN Economic Integration Brief (AEIB) was released on 30 June 2017. The AEIB provides regular updates on ASEAN economic integration progress and outcomes, and is a demonstration of ASEAN’s commitment to strengthen communication and outreach to raise stakeholder awareness of the AEC.

The ASEAN Good Regulatory Practice (GRP) Core Principles was adopted at the 50th AEM Meeting in 29 August 2018 and subsequently endorsed by the AEC Council. It provides a practical, non-binding set of principles to assist ASEAN member states to improve their regulatory practice and foster ASEAN-wide regulatory cooperation.

Socio-Cultural Community

At the heart of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) is the commitment to lift the quality of life of ASEAN peoples through cooperative activities that are people-oriented, people-centered, environmentally friendly, and geared toward the promotion of sustainable development through member states’ cooperation on a wide range of areas including: culture and information, education, youth and sports, health, social welfare and development, women and gender, rights of the women and children, labor, civil service, rural development and poverty eradication, environment, transboundary haze-pollution, disaster management and humanitarian assistance.

Free-Trade Zone

The AEC aims to “implement economic integration initiatives” to create a single market across ASEAN member states. Its blueprint, adopted during the 13th ASEAN Summit (2007) in Singapore, serves as a master plan guiding the establishment of the community. Its characteristics include a single market and production base, a highly competitive economic region, a region of fair economic development, and a region fully integrated into the global economy.

The areas of co-operation include human resources development; recognition of professional qualifications; closer consultation on macroeconomic and financial policies; trade financing measures; enhanced infrastructure and communications connectivity; development of electronic transactions through e-ASEAN; integrating industries across the region to promote regional sourcing; and enhancing private sector involvement.

The AEC is the embodiment of the ASEAN’s vision of “a stable, prosperous and highly competitive ASEAN economic region in which there is a free flow of goods, services, investment and a freer flow of capital, equitable economic development and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities.”

The average economic growth of member states from 1989 to 2009 was between 3.8% and 7%. This was greater than the average growth of APEC, which was 2.8%. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), established on 28 January 1992, includes a Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) to promote the free flow of goods between member states.

ASEAN member states have made significant progress in the lowering of intra-regional tariffs through the CEPT. More than 99 percent of the products in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, have been brought down to the 0-5 percent tariff range. ASEAN’s newer members, namely Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam, are not far behind.

ASEAN member states have also resolved to work on the elimination of non-tariff barriers, which includes, among others, the process of verification and cross-notification; updating the working definition of Non-Tariff Measures (NTMs)/Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs); the setting-up of a database on all NTMs maintained by member states; and the eventual elimination of unnecessary and unjustifiable non-tariff measures.

I led this essay off with the comment that ASEAN does not seem to get the attention it deserves, at least in U.S. national media. Certainly, U.S. President Donald Trump seems to feel it’s not worth a tweet. The closest I was able to find with a quick Internet search was a report that he insulted Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte before meeting him on the sidelines of the Winter 2017 ASEAN Summit meeting!

That said, I must report that I became interested in ASEAN through a segment in Fareed Zacharia’s GPS show on CNN. So, not everybody is completely ignoring what I’ve come to realize is potentially an important regional intergovernmental organization.

I encourage you to learn more about ASEAN by visiting the various links peppering this column. Maybe together we can generate more interest in what could be a powerful U.S. ally in the Eastern Pacific.

So, You Thought It Was About Climate Change?

Smog over Warsaw
Air pollution over Warsaw center city in winter. Piotr Szczepankiewicz / Shutterstock

Sorry about failing to post to this blog last week. I took sick and just couldn’t manage it. This is the entry I started for 10 April, but couldn’t finish until now.

17 April 2019 – I had a whole raft of things to talk about in this week’s blog posting, some of which I really wanted to cover for various reasons, but I couldn’t resist an excuse to bang this old “environmental pollution” drum once again.

A Zoë Schlanger-authored article published on 2 April 2019 by World Economic Forum in collaboration with Quartz entitled “The average person in Europe loses two years of their life due to air pollution” crossed my desk this morning (8 April 2019). It was important to me because environmental pollution is an issue I’ve been obsessed with since the 1950s.

The Setup

One of my earliest memories is of my father taking delivery of a even-then-ancient 26-foot lifeboat (I think it was from an ocean liner, though I never really knew where it came from), which he planned to convert to a small cabin cruiser. I was amazed when, with no warning to me, this great, whacking flatbed trailer backed over our front lawn, and deposited this thing that looked like a miniature version of Noah’s Ark.

It was double-ended – meaning it had a prow-shape at both ends – and was pretty much empty inside. That is, it had benches for survivors to sit on and fittings for oarlocks (I vaguely remember oarlocks actually being in place, but my memory from over sixty years ago is a bit hazy.) but little else. No decks. No superstructure. Maybe some grates in the bottom to keep people’s feet out of the bilge, but that’s about it.

My father spent year or so installing lower decks, upper decks, a cabin with bunks, head and a small galley, and a straight-six gasoline engine for propulsion. I sorta remember the keel already having been fitted for a propeller shaft and rudder, which would class the boat as a “launch” rather than a simple lifeboat, but I never heard it called that.

Finally, after multiple-years’ reconstruction, the thing was ready to dump into the water to see if it would float. (Wooden boats never float when you first put them in the water. The planks have to absorb water and swell up to tighten the joints. Until then, they leak like sieves.)

The water my father chose to dump this boat into was the Seekonk River in nearby Providence, Rhode Island. It was a momentous day in our family, so my mother shepherded my big sister and me around while my father stressed out about getting the deed done.

We won’t talk about the day(s) the thing spent on the tiny shipway off Gano Street where the last patches of bottom paint were applied over where the boat’s cradle had supported its hull while under construction, and the last little forgotten bits were fitted and checked out before it was launched.

While that was going on, I spent the time playing around the docks and frightening my mother with my antics.

That was when I noticed the beautiful rainbow sheen covering the water.

Somebody told me it was called “iridescence” and was caused by the whole Seekonk River being covered by an oil slick. The oil came from the constant movement of oil-tank ships delivering liquid dreck to the oil refinery and tank farm upstream. The stuff was getting dumped into the water and flowing down to help turn Narragansett Bay, which takes up half the state to the south, into one vast combination open sewer and toxic-waste dump.

That was my introduction to pollution.

It made my socks rot every time I accidentally or reluctantly-on-purpose dipped any part of my body into that cesspool.

It was enough to gag a maggot!

So when, in the late 1960s, folks started yammering on about pollution, my heartfelt reaction was: “About f***ing time!”

I did not join the “Earth Day” protests that started in 1970, though. Previously, I’d observed the bizarre antics surrounding the anti-war protests of the middle-to-late 1960s, and saw the kind of reactions they incited. My friends and I had been a safe distance away leaning on an embankment blowing weed and laughing as less-wise classmates set themselves up as targets for reactionary authoritarians’ ire.

We’d already learned that the best place to be when policemen suit up for riot patrol is someplace a safe distance away.

We also knew the protest organizers – they were, after all, our classmates in college – and smiled indulgently as they worked up their resumes for lucrative careers in activist management. There’s more than one way to make a buck!

Bohemians, beatniks, hippies, or whatever term du jour you wanted to call us just weren’t into the whole money-and-power trip. We had better, mellower things to do than march around carrying signs, shouting slogans, and getting our heads beaten in for our efforts. So, when our former friends, the Earth-Day organizers, wanted us to line up, we didn’t even bother to say “no.” We just turned and walked away.

I, for one, was in the midst of changing tracks from English to science. I’d already tried my hand at writing, but found that, while I was pretty good at putting sentences together in English, then stringing them into paragraphs and stories, I really had nothing worthwhile to write about. I’d just not had enough life experience.

Since physics was basic to all the other stuff I’d been interested in – for decades – I decided to follow that passion and get a good grounding in the hard sciences, starting with physics. By the late seventies, I had learned whereof science was all about, and had developed a feel for how it was done, and what the results looked like. Especially, I was deep into astrophysics in general and solar physics in particular.

As time went on, the public noises I heard about environmental concerns began to sound more like political posturing and less like scientific discourse. Especially as they chose to ignore variability of the Sun that we astronomers knew was what made everything work.

By the turn of the millennium, scholarly reports generally showed no observations that backed up the global-warming rhetoric. Instead, they featured ambiguous results that showed chaotic evolution of climate with no real long-term trends.

Those of us interested in the history of science also realized that warm periods coincided with generally good conditions for humans, while cool periods could be pretty rough. So, what was wrong with a little global warming when you needed it?

A disturbing trend, however, was that these reports began to feature a boilerplate final paragraph saying, roughly: “climate change is a real danger and caused by human activity.” They all featured this paragraph, suspiciously almost word for word, despite there being little or nothing in the research results to support such a conclusion.

Since nothing in the rest of the report provided any basis for that final paragraph, it was clearly non-sequitur and added for non-science reasons. Clearly something was terribly wrong with climate research.

The penny finally dropped in 2006 when emeritus Vice President Albert Gore (already infamous for having attempted to take credit for developing the Internet) produced his hysteria-inducing movie An Inconvenient Truth along with the splashing about of Jerry Mahlman’s laughable “hockey-stick graph.” The graph, in particular, was based on a stitching together of historical data for proxies of global temperature with a speculative projection of a future exponential rise in global temperatures. That is something respectable scientists are specifically trained not to do, although it’s a favorite tactic of psycho-ceramics.

Air Pollution

By that time, however, so much rhetoric had been invested in promoting climate-change fear and convincing the media that it was human-induced, that concerns about plain old pollution (which anyone could see) seemed dowdy and uninteresting by comparison.

One of the reasons pollution seemed then (and still does now) old news is that in civilized countries (generally those run as democracies) great strides had already been made beating it down. A case in point is the image at right

East/West Europe Pollution
A snapshot of particulate pollution across Europe on Jan. 27, 2018. (Apologies to Quartz [ https://qz.com/1192348/europe-is-divided-into-safe-and-dangerous-places-to-breathe/ ] from whom this image was shamelessly stolen.)

. This image, which is a political map overlaid by a false-color map with colors indicating air-pollution levels, shows relatively mild pollution in Western Europe and much more severe levels in the more-authoritarian-leaning countries of Eastern Europe.

While this map makes an important point about how poorly communist and other authoritarian-leaning regimes take care of the “soup” in which their citizens have to live, it doesn’t say a lot about the environmental state of the art more generally in Europe. We leave that for Zoë Schlanger’s WEF article, which begins:

“The average person living in Europe loses two years of their life to the health effects of breathing polluted air, according to a report published in the European Heart Journal on March 12.

“The report also estimates about 800,000 people die prematurely in Europe per year due to air pollution, or roughly 17% of the 5 million deaths in Europe annually. Many of those deaths, between 40 and 80% of the total, are due to air pollution effects that have nothing to do with the respiratory system but rather are attributable to heart disease and strokes caused by air pollutants in the bloodstream, the researchers write.

“‘Chronic exposure to enhanced levels of fine particle matter impairs vascular function, which can lead to myocardial infarction, arterial hypertension, stroke, and heart failure,’ the researchers write.”

The point is, while American politicians debate the merits of climate change legislation, and European politicians seem to have knuckled under to IPCC climate-change rhetoric by wholeheartedly endorsing the 2015 Paris Agreement, the bigger and far more salient problem of environmental pollution is largely being ignored. This despite the visible and immediate deleterious affects on human health, and the demonstrated effectiveness of government efforts to ameliorate it.

By the way, in the two decades between the time I first observed iridescence atop the waters of the Seekonk River and when I launched my own first boat in the 1970s, Narragansett Bay went from a potential Superfund site to a beautiful, clean playground for recreational boaters. That was largely due to the efforts of the Save the Bay volunteer organization. While their job is not (and never will be) completely finished, they can serve as a model for effective grassroots activism.

Don’t Panic!

Panic button
Do not push the red button! Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock

20 March 2019 – The image at right visualizes something described in Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At one point, the main characters of that six-part “trilogy” found a big red button on the dashboard of a spaceship they were trying to steal that was marked “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON!” Naturally, they pressed the button, and a new label popped up that said “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON AGAIN!”

Eventually, they got the autopilot engaged only to find it was a stunt ship programmed to crash headlong into the nearest Sun as part of the light show for an interstellar rock band. The moral of this story is “Never push buttons marked ‘DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON.’”

Per the author: “It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”

Despite these references to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this posting has nothing to do with that book, the series, or the guide it describes, except that I’ve borrowed the words from the Guide’s cover as a title. I did that because those words perfectly express the take-home lesson of Bill Snyder’s 11 March 2019 article in The Robot Report entitled “Fears of job-stealing robots are misplaced, say experts.”

Expert Opinions

Snyder’s article reports opinions expressed at the the Conference on the Future of Work at Stanford University last month. It’s a topic I’ve shot my word processor off about on numerous occasions in this space, so I thought it would be appropriate to report others’ views as well. First, I’ll present material from Snyder’s article, then I’ll wrap up with my take on the subject.

“Robots aren’t coming for your job,” Snyder says, “but it’s easy to make misleading assumptions about the kinds of jobs that are in danger of becoming obsolete.”

“Most jobs are more complex than [many people] realize,” said Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

David Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out that education is a big determinant of how developing trends affect workers: “It’s a great time to be young and educated, but there’s no clear land of opportunity for adults who haven’t been to college.”

“When predicting future labor market outcomes, it is important to consider both sides of the supply-and-demand equation,” said Varian, “demographic trends that point to a substantial decrease in the supply of labor are potentially larger in magnitude.”

His research indicates that shrinkage of the labor supply due to demographic trends is 53% greater than shrinkage of demand for labor due to automation. That means, while relatively fewer jobs are available, there are a lot fewer workers available to do them. The result is the prospect of a continued labor shortage.

At the same time, Snyder reports that “[The] most popular discussion around technology focuses on factors that decrease demand for labor by replacing workers with machines.”

In other words, fears that robots will displace humans for existing jobs miss the point. Robots, instead, are taking over jobs for which there aren’t enough humans to do them.

Another effect is the fact that what people think of as “jobs” are actually made up of many “tasks,” and it’s tasks that get automated, not entire jobs. Some tasks are amenable to automation while others aren’t.

“Consider the job of a gardener,” Snyder suggests as an example. “Gardeners have to mow and water a lawn, prune rose bushes, rake leaves, eradicate pests, and perform a variety of other chores.”

Some of these tasks, like mowing and watering, can easily be automated. Pruning rose bushes, not so much!

Snyder points to news reports of a hotel in Nagasaki, Japan being forced to “fire” robot receptionists and room attendants that proved to be incompetent.

There’s a scene in the 1997 film The Fifth Element where a supporting character tries to converse with a robot bartender about another character. He says: “She’s so vulnerable – so human. Do you you know what I mean?” The robot shakes its head, “No.”

Sometimes people, even misanthropes, would prefer to interact with another human than with a drink-dispensing machine.

“Jobs,” Varian points out, “unlike repetitive tasks, tend not to disappear. In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 separate jobs. Since then, the only one to be completely eliminated is that of elevator operator.”

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” founder Elon Musk mea culpa-ed last year “Humans are underrated.”

Another trend Snyder points out is that automation-ready jobs, such as assembly-line factory workers, have already largely disappeared from America. “The 10 most common occupations in the U.S.,” he says, “include such jobs as retail salespersons, nurses, waiters, and other service-focused work. Notably, traditional occupations, such as factory and other blue-collar work, no longer even make the list.

Again, robots are mainly taking over tasks that humans are not available to do.

The final trend that Snyder presents, is the stark fact that birthrates in developed nations are declining – in some cases precipitously. “The aging of the baby boom generation creates demand for service jobs,” Varian points out, “but leaves fewer workers actively contributing labor to the economy.”

Those “service jobs” are just the ones that require a human touch, so they’re much harder to automate successfully.

My Inexpert Opinion

I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, to figure out what role robots will actually have vis-a-vis humans in the future. I think there will be a few macroscopic trends. And, the macroscopic trends should be the easiest to spot ‘cause they’re, well, macroscopic. That means bigger. So, there easier to see. See?

As early as 2010, I worked out one important difference between robots and humans that I expounded in my novel Vengeance is Mine! Specifically, humans have a wider view of the Universe and have more of an emotional stake in it.

“For example,” I had one of my main characters pontificate at a cocktail party, “that tall blonde over there is an archaeologist. She uses ROVs – remotely operated vehicles – to map underwater shipwreck sites. So, she cares about what she sees and finds. We program the ROVs with sophisticated navigational software that allows her to concentrate on what she’s looking at, rather than the details of piloting the vehicle, but she’s in constant communication with it because she cares what it does. It doesn’t.”

More recently, I got a clearer image of this relationship and it’s so obvious that we tend to overlook it. I certainly missed it for decades.

It hit me like a brick when I saw a video of an autonomous robot marine-trash collector. This device is a small autonomous surface vessel with a big “mouth” that glides around seeking out and gobbling up discarded water bottles, plastic bags, bits of styrofoam, and other unwanted jetsam clogging up waterways.

The first question that popped into my mind was “who’s going to own the thing?” I mean, somebody has to want it, then buy it, then put it to work. I’m sure it could be made to automatically regurgitate the junk it collects into trash bags that it drops off at some collection point, but some human or humans have to make sure the trash bags get collected and disposed of. Somebody has to ensure that the robot has a charging system to keep its batteries recharged. Somebody has to fix it when parts wear out, and somebody has to take responsibility if it becomes a navigation hazard. Should that happen, the Coast Guard is going to want to scoop it up and hand its bedraggled carcass to some human owner along with a citation.

So, on a very important level, the biggest thing robots need from humans is ownership. Humans own robots, not the other way around. Without a human owner, an orphan robot is a pile of junk left by the side of the road!