A brave new world.
I consider it that because of unsustainable levels of debt that keeps growing relentlessly, driven largely by government borrowing.
Debt has grown by about $60 trillion since 2007, which is a compound annual growth rate of over 5%, way above Gross Domestic Product growth in major economies (China may claim a faster GDP raise, but they also admit that their official economic indicators are “for reference only”.)
The underlying cause of this debt glut are trillions of free or cheap money created by central banks since 2009, combined with near zero interest rates. And then money multiplication happens on the commercial banking level, which is really the creator of liquidity in the economy.
John Maynard Keynes once wrote that money is a “link to the future” – meaning that what we do with money is a signal of what we think is going to happen in the future. What we’ve done with credit since the global crisis of 2008 is expand it faster than the economy – which can only be done rationally if we think the future is going to be much richer than the present.
It appears that the only way in which the expanding credit mountain can be an accurate signal about the future is if we are about to go through a spectacular productivity boom. The technology is there to do that, but the social arrangements are not. And they’re not easy or fast to develop.
So if the borrowing is not sustainable, then one needs to ask himself the question how is this going to end? Consider that the governments across the developed world, almost without exception, run fiscal deficits year after year, never repay anything, just roll over the maturing obligations and borrow more to cover the current shortfall.
France, for example, had a balanced budget last in 1969 – that’s half a century of fiscal mismanagement.
The US is heading for trillion-dollar annual budget deficits from 2020 as Republican-led tax cuts and higher public spending strain the nation’s finances
Against this background, we’re entering a period of rising interest rates, a trend already visible in the US. The European yields are still suppressed because of the ECB buying spree, but they are the market – once the European Central Bank stops buying, or even slows the pace, there will be no other bid.
Who else would buy Italian 5 year bond at 1.2% given the house of horrors that is the Italian economy? No wonder they made it illegal to short government bonds.
The truth is that the ECB (same like the central bank in Japan) have destroyed bond markets in their respective areas and have nothing to show for it in terms of growth.
A change is coming and will be an opportunity for a prepared mind. Impossible to know when and which form it will take, but it will happen. A new monetary order will be established, like it happens with some frequency in our history.
It could well be an opportunity of a lifetime to make it big.
Humbled by experience
I consider this virtue an important one that can make or break a man.
And it changes you.
One example is Colin Powell, a four star general in the US army with real battle experience from Vietnam. There are too many generals around the world now, who know battle only from computer games, and this is no joke, it’s really true.
But Powell is different and it shows - you just need to look at him how he carries himself, how he talks.
Or consider Nassim Taleb, Lebanese by birth, a long time trader on Wall Street, now a professor at the NYU and a great writer. His “Fooled by Randomness” is brilliant.
Nassim’s specialty was out of money options, which he was buying.
These are financial instruments that will make you lose a little money for most of the time, except when there is a huge event in the markets and you make a fortune.
So this guy, Nassim, went to bed every night for seven, eight or nine years knowing full well that he will loose some money tomorrow. Imagine that.
Then the 2008 crisis came, which he predicted some four years earlier, and he made all the money back and then some.
This takes guts. It’s not your bread and butter nine-to-five.
It also shows that geniuses come in two flavors – one is a person with a great bold idea, the prodigy. Like the Silicon Valley wonder kids.
And the other is the one who comes through trial and error – the late bloomer, the strong and stubborn one.
But they both share something important in common – the notion of meaningful work. And this is unique and vital.
It brings with it some insights, which will surprise you, if you follow that thought.
First, you have to be prepared to constantly revise your conclusions.
Not easy at all.
Second, you will question the education system, which grooms us for so many years, preparing us for adulthood and any jobs that we may aspire to.
Let me give you an example.
Currently, jobs all over the world are lost to robots, computers and technology in general.
This is not a trend that will ever stop, it will only accelerate.
So it is a folly to teach kids subjects and concepts that directly compete with machines.
The robot in the plant is faster, more precise, doesn’t take vacation and doesn’t have a bad day. It will beat a human every time.
We need to teach the kids things that the machines can’t do - creativity, values, teamwork, responsibility. Technology doesn’t compete with these human abilities.
For this we need a new system, and there is no choice but to do it. Whichever country will figure this one first will be ahead of everybody else.
Experiences which humble you, also make want you to know one important thing, at least that is my case. If ever die, and I obviously will, I want to ask the higher power one question, and I hope that I will be allowed to.
I have made some bold decisions in my life and I want to know which of them were right, and in which cases I would be better of doing the opposite.
Not that it matters after I’m dead, but I still want to know.
Call it my requiem.
Somewhere between. *
It’s somewhere between your work routine and what do you hold dear in your mind that makes the life real, every day.
It’s between the expected and the unusual.
And as much as you like your typical day, you’re kind of hoping for the latter.
And you know it well; a slow, rainy Tuesday afternoon will make it painfully obvious.
It’s between you thinking sitting in your car: “do I need a haircut?” or “do my kids still respect me” when things become clearer in your mind.
Like – what do you really want to accomplish in life and how exactly do you want to do it.
What would make you happy in the years you have left on this planet?
One day you’re stuck in a big traffic jam on highway one on the way west to Geneva and this is what’s going through your mind:
Am I gaining ground
Am I losing face
Have I lost and found my saving grace
The daily things are like your comfortable slippers by the bed, always there, but some of us just can’t stand it.
I know I can’t.
And if you’re mentality rejects this too, then you understand my problem.
And this dilemma can only be solved on an individual level, between you and you - no school or work experience will do it.
They’re useless in this regard.
It’s you on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, there is no help.
So I believe the lines below are right. Read them on your own risk, as they negate most of what you’d learned at school.
Somewhere between the lies and truths, borderlines get shady.
Somewhere between suspicion and trust are all the things worth knowing.
So here I am on the highway one to Geneva on a sunny Friday in the beautiful Romandie, the French speaking part of Switzerland.
The snow is receding to the top of the mountains and will soon be gone, except for Mount Blanc, which stays snow covered all year.
Hence the name, by the way.
In my town, gorgeous Cypress threes grow outside the window and I absolutely love to see them.
It is the best place in Europe of them all, in my opinion, perhaps the best kept secret in the world.
It’s really that good.
Romandie stretches from Geneva in the west of Switzerland to about Neuchatel to the east.
I would like to think that it goes up to the town of Areuse - this is where the French charm is at it’s best and then it gets diluted.
East of it is where the German speaking cities start gradually and it’s a different experience.
Life tends to be strange for me down here at times, and I consider myself an American, not European.
I really love the American culture, but every time I leave here I can’t wait to be back. I’m hooked.
So, this is my new reality and I have to make the best of it.
One more quote at the end:
One time around the sun
Another year older and my work ain't done
It's time for me to write the final chapter.
Deal the cards and roll the dice
Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are my only vice
Trying to figure out what's here after.
*Lyrics by Everlast.
It’s very possible that if I ever write another book, it will be about what’d happened on this flat mountaintop in Judea dessert a long time ago.
And that is because this is one of the most riveting stories of our civilization and it seems to be forgotten.
Never really told much outside of Israel and the Jewish diaspora.
Masada, “fortress” in Hebrew, is an ancient fortification located on top of an isolated rock plateau in the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea.
Herod the Great built palaces there for himself, some 30 years before Jesus was born not all that far from there.
“That’s history right in front of you”, is what went through my mind when I stood there on one hot summer evening. I had the feeling that time just stopped and stood still with a vicious satisfaction.
Places like this do it to you.
According to the historian Josephus, the siege of Masada by Roman troops at the end of the first Jewish-Roman war ended in the mass suicide of 960 people. The Sicarii rebels and their families hid on the mountaintop, with nowhere left to go.
They held their hands together and jumped off the cliff, valuing death as opposed to the slaving alternative.
Before that, however, they fought and fought, and for long three years, were able to hold back at least 10,000 Roman troops, which were armed with every contemporary siege weapon.
If this story doesn’t stop you cold in your tracks than I don’t know what will.
But there is more to it and it evades human brain likely because of the sheer tragedy of it, which fogs the mind.
The Romans were by far the most sophisticated society of their times - that is how they built their empire! There was nobody better.
And by sophisticated I mean business – they knew how life worked and exploited it.
This is not a small achievement and any sensible person will give it to them, I hope.
In contrast - the Jews of Masada were viciously set in their ways, and referred to as Zealots, a term that survived until modern times. They wouldn’t have any of this business ‘thing’ at all. They’d rather jump.
So the question for me, standing in Masada, looking down at the still surface of the Dead Sea and at the mountains of Jordan on the other side was this:
“Who prevailed in the end?”
There are two dimensions to the answer.
People perished, 960 of them, women, children and men.
So that’s one, just death and destruction.
Now, what is left for the other answer is the tradition on one side (what religion really is) and Roman culture on the other.
And if you aren’t convinced of either of them, then you’re like me when I got into the car at the bottom of the mountain later that evening.
I have a quote from a great movie that just may be proper for this moment.
It is from “The International,” when Clive Owen’s character says this to Naomi Watts:
“In life there are bridges you keep and bridges you burn. I am the one you burn.”
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler