15 July 2009

Guys with Brains, Hearts and balance

This biz of living is difficult to get right, you have got to be able to live with yourself, connect meaningfully with others, avoid debt, delusion, denial and despair and generally acheive a relaxed independant and self aware state.

Which is why I really love to read posts by people who have balance....people who:

Are not partisan..
Have no strong opinions on market direction..
Aware that credible living is connected to self awareness and self reliance and carefully directed acquisition; of wholeness, of skills, of knowledge first of all and stuff least of all.

My success recently was in the giving away...of cigarettes and in the taking up of a desire to master the art of relaxation and the passion to practice.

Here are posts that moved with with their tone, topic and touch this month...

Cassandra Does Tokyo


My family and I are moving. Across an ocean. Large upheavals for the entire lot of us. Leaving friends and an indolent but simply honest way of life will be challenging for children and parents alike. But this is no time for regret as the die has proverbially been cast. As a result, I've had little time to write - much to my chagrin - hence the spartan posting of late, as the practical details associated with sifting and sorting more than a decade-and-a-half of accumulated shite and entrenched life that seemingly must (and now as I edit this, has) found its way into boxes and crates before floating across the azure, and hopefully placid (lest the container slip off), sea.

Down-sizing is a time-consuming though cathartic exercise. One gets lost in the endless photos, letters to or from friends, loved-ones now passed and old flames, pondering the whereabouts of old acquaintances whose address on a scrap of paper or business card has been used as a bookmark in a half-finished novel, or in ruminations upon mementos such the unusual brass desk calendar (something like this) with a fine 70-year old patina that turns to flip the two-sided cards within in order to change the prevailing day, (twice at the end of the month if it's a short one) ... one of the few tangible relics I possess from my grandfather, that made the cut on all prior moves, and will, again, this time. As I packed, I wondered of the origins and stories of these oddities and curios - the seemingly endless accumulated junk like the pair of E&Y mini-binoculars handed out at some function or another, never used, having consumed resources, the energy of asian labour, shippers diesel, the forwarders trans-shipments, multiple deliveries and manifests that brought it hither only to land (with one of it's siblings, no less) in a drawer, still-protected by its hermetical seal. Multiplied by five people, and untold drawers and shelves, now binomially at the crossroads between the increasingly pregnant rubbish bag, and membership in the growing tower of #42, #52, and #62 cartons, the exercise is arduous. Will the stuffed animals ever be re-cuddled, the re-match of "Clue", ever re-played, or the old cards and letters ever be re-read?!? Yet a few days later, with the boxes gone, I cannot tell you what became of most of them, such was the frenzy and blizzard of the removal. Now, I am profoundly unsettled. Not because of the impending move, but because I am not proud of the hoard. In fact, just the opposite. I am at once shocked and horrified by the obscenity of clothes, linen, PVC, toys, games, DVDs, CDs stuffed animals and all type of shiny, glazed colourful bric-a-brac that we human magpies collect (or, at least my family unit has collected). And yet, prior to this, I thought (or romantically imagined) we were parsimonious - at least compared to our peers. "Quality, not quantity". "No No No, you CANNOT have that - it's a waste...". The unending pleas to grandparents NOT to buy more junk. "Need little, want less", the wise catchphrase, over at Jesse's Cafe I hold out as a core value to demonstrate good non-acquisitive non-materialistic values. And yet, before me are boxes with too-many-multiples and sets of errrr ummm well, nearly everything, evidence I've failed in my attempts. Despite continual shedding of excess to friends, acquaintances, and the needy, the substantial purge of what will shortly be incinerated, and the sale of all the pedestrian furniture, devices that will not operate on 220v, what remains seems inconceivably vast, I feel empty, and ill as a result. I wish for that feeling when I first discovered DT Suzuki, identified with anicca and annata, and swore a now-broken oath that I'd never find myself where I presently am.

Analysing how this happened without my noticing, I begin to suspect that there is something allegorical in my predicament, both with respect to The Credit Bubble in general, and the erosion of America's fiscal position, and household balance sheets in particular. For just as I never set out with a plan to mindlessly consume and acquire, so too did America not consciously embark upon a credit-induced death-wish, nor the State and Her households conspire to burden themselves with untenably servicable quantities of debt. Incrementalism was the path. Manana, manana, manana was the mantra of denial that insured the difficult choice, the painful option, the road less travelled, was rarely contemplated let alone set out upon. Just as one doesn't become hugely obese by the pull of a rip-cord, the extension and multiplication of credit is not instanteously conjured. It is a slow-motion result cumulating from innumerable small decisions, each not life-threatening and reversible in themselves, but when conjoined, and embedded in feedback-loops, result in veritable disaster, be it fiscally, in one's waistline, or, in the accumulation of stuff. One's child desire's a brightly coloured plastic widget-thinger. One is tired, so one relents, makes the bargain with the devil and buys it - a respite from incessant demands, a bribe to keep the polity content. But intuitively, from wisdom and experience one knows it will rarely be played with thereafter, as are the multitudes of birthday presents, holiday gifts from family close and far. One knows the moment of weakness, far from currying favor or satiating demand, will only amplify it. One knows intuitively it's wrong and wasteful. But few are strong enough. Few people in the heat of that decisive moment - be it a mindless "toy" or an omnibus appropriations bill take into account cost vs. benefit analyses or an assessment of negative externalities. A plant, a book, a poem, a perennial bulb, a sketch, a charitable donation, all devalued in favor of PVC plastic bakelite injection molded synthetic rayon nylon stuff with imagination engagement values measured in the minutes or hours, but environmental half-lives measured in the centuries. Or deficit-spent consumption at the expense of investment. It is the same. How did we get here? Haven't more people noticed?

Does this stuff have value to anyone else? Would it find a market in its hovel of origin, outside of the salvage value from the materials from which is was constructed? Were they thinking of the gullible buyers, as I wonder about who made it? Decorative votive holders? Harvest motif napkin rings? Endless junk and clutter, some once useful, others never approached any reasonable utility. There is no secondary market value for most of it. Even the local charity ceased to accept clothes excepting those of a suitable pedigree. Beggars, it would seem, can, and are, choosy.

Now, I have shed [much of] my excess, filled my boxes, and sent them on their way in the container. Now, I am living in a minimalist purgatory for a couple of months until my [remaining] belongings arrive at their destination. I miss none of it. I feel liberated. If the container fell off of the ship, was waylaid by Somali pirates, or jack-knifed on the A7 enroute to delivery, I would shed no tears. I have my family, my health, a piano, some books, a trusty bicycle (which I've yet to figure out how to bring to its new home), and my running shoes. But this is potentially where the allegory stops. The last twelve months of de-leveraging at first glance, appeared to provide some strong introspective incentives. The upper boundary of aggregate credit appeared to have been reached, and the consequence of the mass-realization of this fact, combined with the cascading impact upon asset prices of system-wide reactions was too much to countenance. While I've satirically and bitterly mocked how we got there, as we were getting there, I do believe in the predicament at the moment, that stabilization of the patient was necessary. Just seven months ago, we had innumerable 'Ghost of Xmas Past' moments. "Never again" , "How could we have been so foolish?" "XYZ is the new normal", etc. Now, with asset prices on the mend, and feedback loop, well, feeding back in the prevailing direction, there is the belief that the worst is passed. Recovery is purportedly here (at least if viewed through the eyes of risk premia). Jimmy Stewart is already forgotten, as are the sleepless nights of what systemic obliteration might have meant. The promises of change and pleas of obedience to the deity of choice have been transgressed. Or at least so say the price action of the commodity complex and diversified inflation hedges.

This may true. But the crucial question, put most simply is: Has the denoument of the crisis passed, or is this merely the eye of the storm?? I am but an economist with a very small "e", however, as I wrote in favored post "If You Can't Tell Who The Sucker Is...", the question of what is likely to appear to be normal in hindsight is not (if this is The Big One as I believe it is) what is popularly perceived. "Peak Credit" has come and gone, and with it, the Era of Stupid Loans passed - for this generation anyway. In hindsight, we will wonder NOT why credit was crunched, but how the hallucinogenic wheat fungus that caused those with capital to, along with pixie dust conjured from it, to give it away to anyone and everyone who wanted it with such reckless abandon. So IF the era of Stupid Loans is finished, there will be no recovery. There will be precious little inflation, and it is likely deflation will persist.

I want to be bullish. I want asset prices to already be south of some long-term equilibrium, and be ready to rise. It would be less painful for The People. But with employment shocks still to ripple through the chain of dependencies, household balance sheets compromised, continued real-estate indigestion, our position between a fiscal rock & a hard place, and continued financial sector deleveraging, we collectively are the place that I've just been. We collectively are just beginning to sift through our shit - mentally sizing up what's important, what to take and what to leave. We are just beginning to realize that tough choices lie ahead - in all facets of life. We are just beginning to understand that these choices do not include 5-litre Cadillacs, absurdly over-applianced kitchens, or $5 iced-frappucino lattes. But, on the bight side - you won't miss most of it as much as you ex-ante believe you might...

Jesse on Life in Japan


A friend in Japan is updating me on how things are going there.

Its been about ten years since I have worked in Tokyo personally, but everything he is saying is a logical extension of how things were at that time. I am very familiar with the NTT communication system, which was the basis of some of our early work here in the US. Its convenient sometimes to have a determined bureaucracy with plenty of money and power at your back when its time to get a strategic initiative achieved.

This is useful because people like to make facile comparisons between Japan and the US without really understanding some important differences in the markets, public policy, demographics, and culture.
"There are many things here that make life difficult, but on the other hand, make life much easier, some planned, some dictated by circumstances and by accident. It seems very socialist. Makes it very difficult to compare Japan and the US.

There is national health care here. Due to a focus on disease prevention (they have started to take waist measurements and warn you if your waist is say more than 34 inches), not eating too much meat, getting enough vitamin D from sunlight and getting a little exercise because you have to walk 10 minutes to the train station, you can expect, on average, to be fully functional until about 75 and live into your 80s.

Almost everyone is reimbursed for commute to work, by least expensive route, say bus and train, even if you work in a convenience store. Japanese people have told me that the idea is that everyone who wants to work should be able to work where they want without being deterred by the cost of the commute. At one firm I worked at, the limit for the reimbursement was 800 dollars per month, so a very few people commuted by bullet train from quite a distance away. More exactly, if you go to work 5 days a week, the company will reimburse you for the bus/train pass, which allows unlimited travel, so you can use the train pass to go shopping or do other things on weekends for free.

My pass for a half hour commute each way, about 40 miles round trip, is 120 dollars per month. This is why the public transportation systems work well and have continued to improve. All the trains are continuing in improve, and for example, the bullet train now uses one half the energy it did when it debuted 45 years ago. JR East, beginning with the Yamanote Line, is replacing all its trains with new regenerative braking trains that are lighter and roomier and use half the energy of the earlier models. Advertisements on the trains say it takes 1/10 the energy to go by train than by car, but I think that is for older models.

Which brings us to the biggest advantage: most people do not need a car here, and if they do need one, a household can get by with just one car.

I have long thought of cars as vampires sucking the economic life out of every household in the US. And the risk of death and serious injury from car accidents is about half what it is in the US (although the statistics may not be directly comparable).

In 45 years, only one rider has been killed on the bullet train, and that was because he tried to stick his hand in the door too late and got the sleeve of his jacket caught in the door. While there are commuter train accidents from time to time, they are rare, and I think in Tokyo, the last passenger deaths were about a decade ago when a train derailed. Since the auto fatalities in Japan are about 7,000 per year, whereas in the US they are around 40,000 per year with about double the population, I guess that if the Japanese drove as much as people in the US, there would be about another 10,000 auto fatalities per year here, so over the 20 years I have lived here, there are say 200,000 people walking around who wouldn't otherwise be here. That trumps absolutely all other considerations.

I think it is telling that during the oil price spike last year, the US cut its gasoline consumption by about 5%, whereas in Japan, gasoline consumption was cut by 14%. I said, the Japanese cut their gasoline consumption by 14%... BECAUSE THEY CAN.

Broadband, subsidized and incentivized, has been here for a decade. Around 1999, I picked up a Yahoo Broadband modem, filled out a form, brought it home, and plugged it in. 6 M/sec, 15 dollars a month. Although I didn't understand it at the time, the modem was converting my telephone calls into internet telephony, so calls to the US that were a dollar a minute by NTT were suddenly a flat 3 cents a minute. Around new year, I made a lot of phone calls, and was bracing for a thousand dollar phone bill... and then I realized that I hadn't gotten an NTT bill in months... it was instead a 20 dollar charge tacked on to my credit card.

The Japanese government has been panicking about the oil running out for more than a decade. I noticed Koizumi saying "global warming, global warming" over and over again, and mention of peak oil was conspicuous by its absence. That's when I realized that when he was addressing the captains of industry, what he was really saying was "You idiots, the oil is running out! Get the energy use of everything down!"

Because broadband is widely available, the Japanese government went from wanting 10% of workers to telecommute at least some of the time, to wanting 20% to telecommute by next year, as a means of reducing energy consumption.

Mitsubishi is advertising a split system heat pump air conditioner/heater that runs at about 6 cents per hour (and the electricity rate here is high, about 20 cents a kilowatt hour). My Sharp heat pump is 16 years old and runs for about 10 cents an hour. My total heating/cooling expense for a year is about 300 dollars.

There is a huge panic going on in the US about how bad the electricity grid is. I think there are estimates that unreliable electricity is costing the US 100 billion per year. In Tokyo, there has been only one major blackout in 20 years, and that affected only about a quarter of the city for half a day due to a crane snagging high tension wires. The only outages I have seen myself were when a construction crew accidentally severed a line (one hour) and when a fighter jet crashed into high tension wires (two hours). Quakes do not normally affect electricity, water, or telephone. Gas meters have automatic sensors that turn off gas supply, and then if it seems all clear after an hour, automatically reset. We sometimes have fairly big quakes every day for weeks on end... I'm not joking.

When a quake is detected by sensors, the sensors send signals to a central computer. The computer has models of 100,000 quake scenarios, and it matches the data to a scenario, estimating the surface shaking for each small grid square of Japan. If surface shaking in a particular location is predicted to exceed a certain level, the bullet trains automatically engage emergency braking. All city halls have automatic announcement systems that estimate the shaking and count down to the arrival of the primary wave at their particular location. Nuclear reactors and power generating stations receive advance warnings. Some residential condos also have this. I suppose it will become standard soon.

You can get warnings of a few seconds or minutes depending on how far away the quake is.

(After seeing the Kobe quake first hand, my solution was 1) buy earthquake ground shaking estimate map of Tokyo, 2) see closest station to downtown where risk drops substantially due to granite outcrop getting you off the alluvial plain. Estimates of shaking in downtown Tokyo is 10 times the estimated shaking where I live.)

This is why I think it is so difficult to compare the situations. You cannot walk away from the mortgage. On the other hand, your commute is subsidize and you do not need a car, so it is as if the condo were free."

The Duncan is a star.

Gary has talent.

There are others here.

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