I just finished reading a blog post that compares educational achievement across the globe (read it here). As an American, it initially troubled me, since the main thrust of the discussion was the U.S.’s failure in math and science education, compared to other countries. One of the points the author focused on was that textbooks in the U.S. tend to be extremely broad, but not particularly deep, in their coverage of a subject. Apparently this type of survey approach isn’t as effective as the methods used by better scoring countries (deeper dives into fewer subjects).
He then suggested a brilliant idea! Why not source textbooks from the most successful countries for a given discipline? There are, of course, plenty of problems with this approach. Textbooks exist in a wider pedagogical plan that spans years; they also are the products of, and supporting text for, particular cultures. There are also great advantages to a broad diversity of global study that would need to be preserved. Still, the fundamental notion of globally sourcing our educational materials and methods has extreme fundamental merit.
There seem to be two approaches to drawing value from this idea. One is a top-down approach which is centered around one or more NGOs, UN committees, etc. The other, and more fun, is a bottom-up approach of looking at centers of excellence around the world and drawing their resources into an informal global collaboration. When all is said and done, each text book has to be translated one at a time, and each school or person needs to make individual choices regarding participation. This is classic crowd sourcing applied to a highly educated and effective crowd.
I wonder how you feel about this. Please comment.
Tim Rohde is Co-founder/Publisher & COO of the-future.com.
What music would go best with this wine? As incredible as it sounds, the marketing folks at Wente Winery are drawing people to their winery by creating fun events exploring the connection between wine and popular music. These events are quickly turned into audio and video downloads available on their website, sent out to their Facebook Friends and made available as Twitter tweets.
Social Media is the new name of the game in wine marketing, a multi-billion dollar business with competition between brands, especially in the affordable under $20 category, quite fierce. Though all groups are receptive to social media messages, the wineries are specifically targeting the 77 million strong Millennial generation (21 – 32) who, they hope, will take the place of the similar-sized Boomer generation. Unlike the Boomer generation, Millennials are very responsive to trying a wide variety of wines, and have proven to be quite discriminating. A study commissioned by the Wine Market Council suggests that in comparison to their elders, Millennials like to ask questions about wine, try exotic new regions and pride themselves on their familiarity with specific vineyards.
Research also has proven that wine bloggers are more influential to the Millennial age group than professional and respected critics such as Robert Parker, despite the reality that few bloggers have serious wine credentials. Still, it’s true that wine is a very subjective experience. Often, the reason for wine bloggers’ popularity is not necessarily their own viewpoints, but that their blogs provide the stimulus for a discussion about wine. At the moment, Wine Blogging Wednesdays is a monthly event in which bloggers all buy the same wine, then post their tasting notes. The activity is fun, educational and social. Many people never meet their “Internet friends” in person, yet feel connected with them. This connection is a crucial ingredient of why social media is working and why wineries need to reach as many people as possible through social media and make them feel they are part of the club.
Social Media in the form of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube videos, and blogging is already here, yet in the next few years will become more popular, more focused, and with much more two-way interaction. The next step would be some sort of invention based on the scratch and sniff insert of perfume in magazines, whereas consumers could smell a wine’s aroma through the Internet and, if the consumer finds the aroma agreeable, could click a button and buy it on the spot. While technology already allows users on very sophisticated websites to click on a vineyard and learn about its soil, aspect, microclimate, etc., this will be the standard, soon. Perhaps wineries could also construct winemaker holograms that could emerge from the computer screen and give an ‘in-person’ lecture about the wines on demand.
Yet, no matter how high tech and sci-fi wine marketing becomes in the future, one thing is for certain: appreciation and enjoyment of wine is all about what is in the glass.
Fine Wine Writer Marisa DVari, AIWS, CSW is publisher of the online magazine http://www.awinestory.com, Wine & Spirits Editor for Taste Magazine Cincinnati, NY Wine Pairing Examiner for the national online newspaper NY Examiner for Smart Wine Plus (formerly Wine Investor’s Buyer’s Guide) in addition to syndicating her weekly column to a variety of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and blogs.
Sustainability requires a long-term outlook that encourages responsible consumption. Fashion, it seems, is fundamentally at odds with this goal. Perhaps apparel can be made sustainably, but fashion? Fashion is more than a product; fashion is a mode of thought. It affects everything from design to purchasing to obsolescence, and is usually distinguished by a fast-paced and ever-replenishing chain of supply and demand. The inevitable consequence of quick and constant change is ravenous resource consumption and a vast accumulation of waste. Better production methods can slow resource use and recycling can reduce waste, but buying (and therefore making) fewer products will address both problems.
Stemming consumption in America will be hard. The United States represents only five percent of the worlds population, while its consumers use up approximately 25 percent of the worlds natural resources. Our motivations for buying (sometimes more than we can afford or need) are complex and deeply rooted in our culture. Whether its ordering a supersized McDonalds fries or purchasing yet another pair of Manolo Blahniks to add to the 100 pairs of shoes already in a closet bursting at the seams, clearly, sheer quantity is seductive. In addition, a basic human need is looking as though you belong to a place, a culture, a moment in time. It seems that Americans not only need to belong, we need to be better. We demonstrate our superiority through conspicuous consumption, and fashion lets us wear our aspirations on our sleeves.
Apparel long since ceased to simply protect us from the elements, and as soon as it did, it took on connotations of fashion. Probably since the last Ice Age, anything worn has communicated the wearers sense of self and position in society. This is true whether the clothes in question are full-on Goth, a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress and kitten heels, or a blue suit, white shirt and red tie. Specifically fashionable clothes (i.e., clothing promoted by the fashion industry) can enhance the consumers status by communicating a persons ability to purchase products without regard to price (higher prices for new products are not necessarily related to higher quality), and a persons knowledge of what is in. For many fashion leaders, fashion is addictive because it advertises how with it someone is with the newest and most cutting-edge ensembles.
Americans buy and buy and buy clothes. As a comparison between American and European spending habits demonstrates, our appetite for fashion is not simply an inevitable consequence of affluence and available choice. Lets look at Americans first. The most recent Bureau of Labor figures on consumer spending habits show that the average American family of three has approximately $44,400 (after taxes) to spend on everything it needs to sustain living. Of this, it spends approximately 11 percent on apparel and apparel services (laundry, dry cleaning, etc.). This works out to approximately $4,884 or $1,628 per person in a family per yearan increase over apparel spending for the several previous years. Now, lets look at the Europeans. On average, Europeans (of the 12 EU countries tallied) spend only seven percent of their disposable income on apparel and apparel services (according to www.eustatistics.gov.uk). Not only do Europeans spend less of their income on clothing, they: 1) dont focus on price as the first feature they look for when buying, 2) are willing to pay more for their clothing because they fully expect their clothes to be worn longer than do Americans, and 3) demand high-quality products. Could Americans become more like Europeans in our apparel-buying habits? Should we?
Given the statistics related to ravenous apparel consumption and its attendant waste, Im going to answer the second question with a yes. For the sake of the environment (as well as their individual credit ratings!), Americans should buy fewer clothes. (They should buy less stuff, period, but that is beyond the scope of this article.) The answer to the first question is more elusive. I believe we can become more like Europeans in our buying habits, but realizing that possibility is complicated.
In the old adage quality vs. quantity, quality is contrasted with quantity as if its only possible to have one of these characteristics. Yet quality-loving Europeans do indeed buy less per year, and they still end up with closets full of clothing. This is possible because their higher quality-based purchases last longer than clothing designed solely with low price in mind.
However, the word quality invites interpretation. Indeed, noted quality assurance author, educator and researcher, Dr. Sara Kadolph of Iowa State University has concluded that when a person describes a product as quality, she could be ascribing to it any number of positive attributes, among them: performance, features, reliability, conformance between design and function, durability, serviceability, aesthetics and other perceived quality issues, such as those related to brand name. Given the abundance of types of quality, do Americans value the right kind of quality, the kind of quality that would persuade them to be happy with less?
Before we can evaluate that question, we should first be explicit about what the right kind of quality would be. With an eye to reducing resource use and landfill, I propose that reliability (both in wear and care) and durability are necessary for a piece of apparel to escape being replaced after a season. In other words, the knit pullover cant sag and pill, the white shirt cant turn dingy grey and the coat placket cant have buttons hanging by a mere thread. Of course, sustainable fashion (not just apparel) is our challenge; I would be cheating if I didnt acknowledge that the piece has to stay genuinely fashionable, or at least attractive and wearable, for several seasons. I dont see this as an impossibility. While fashions come and go, surely we all have a few items that we have kept for years. The goal would be to keep most of our items for many years and only acquire very few new pieces a year.
So, do Americans appreciate this kind of quality? Theres some evidence that they do. Relatively recently, my research revealed that even teenagers respect quality. After conducting several studies related to apparel shopping behavior in 12- to 18-year-olds, it came to light that the kids interviewed were aware that quality is supposed to be an important consideration when shopping for clothing. When pressed for an answer about what quality meant to them, the children said that the clothes they bought should be long-lasting. They were probably repeating what theyd heard from their parents.
While its nice to know that a reverence for quality is still being passed down from generation to generation in America, actions speak louder than words. Widespread American devotion to stores like Old Navy and H&M suggests that our working definition of quality has more to do with achieving the highest quantity to dollar ratio. According to this understanding, the consumer wins by being able to acquire a lot with practically no money, leaving her with a lot of money left over, which represents a lot of new opportunities to buy more. Obviously, this kind of quality holds no promise for curing shopaholism and overconsumption, and results in a cycle of demanding more and more for less and less. This buying philosophy is not good for society, consumers or the apparel industry.
The European meaning of quality conjures an image of the artisan hunched over his bench, painstakingly stitching away. Europeans tend to assess quality by how an object measures up to the ideal (defined in part by traditions of craftsmanship). The European consumer wins by buying the most perfect object. Having achieved her aim, she takes pride in the object for its own sake, an attitude which reduces the chance that she will want to replace it quickly. Quality à la Europe seems like a concept that can quell consumption.
Although Americans give a lot of lip service (and mostly just lip service) to quality in their apparel, the mere fact that the adolescents did identify quality as a good thing suggests to me that quality is not so foreign to Americans that we cannot learn to appreciate it fully. Like taste, an eye for quality can be developed.
Ideally, industry professionals would educate consumers about quality. They are in a prime position to do so. Wouldnt it be great if retail brands used their marketing materials to convince customers that improved quality (and increased price) is, in fact, a good thing, because in the long run they will pay less per wear with a longer-lasting item? Or what if industry leaders let consumers know that by paying more for something theyll never want to throw away, they will not only have something theyll love, but they will also be contributing to a cleaner planet?
Would such ground-breaking tactics cause companies to lose sales and, therefore, income? Not necessarily. A calculated price increase could offset lower sales volume. Better yet, if companies demonstrate how higher prices fund higher wages, more U.S. jobs and responsible environmental stewardship, that could create a devoted customer base. If the same amount of money currently spent on advertising low prices were spent instead on advertising the advantages of purchasing longer-lasting and higher-quality apparel, perhaps consumers would change their purchasing habits.
Reality check: very, very few brands even try to make these claims. Retailers rarely focus on the quality characteristics mentioned previously, especially features such as reliability and durability. As the monumental success of Wal-Mart demonstrates, cheap makes money! For at least several decades, purchases have increasingly been driven by lower prices. And inexpensive mass production makes money because consumers support it. Well, no wonder. In a marketplace characterized by indifferent quality and buy-one-get-one-free retail gimmicks, who can blame Americans for basing their purchasing decisions on the lowest price? The unfortunate upshot of this is that Americans have been desensitized to quality. (Possibly most of us couldnt even recognize its hallmarks if we tried). Ironically, the race for low prices has also resulted in companies losing profitability and being forced to move overseas, where they can produce more cheaply and thus give consumers the price they demandfor now. It seems inevitable that, unless we completely ignore worker equity, the price of goods must bottom out. When it does, companies will look for a way to differentiate themselves and justify raising their prices. A return to quality is one way they might do that.
I hope consumers will call for industry change before that. As Thomas Friedman pointed out in his bestseller, The World is Flat, every buying decision a consumer makes is a vote indicating their support or lack of support for how companies conduct business. Consumer power was decisively proven in the apparel industry during the great midi disaster of the 1970s. After several seasons of selling miniskirts, the fashion industry deemed it time for the mini to cycle into obsolescence and attempted to introduce a new, longer style called the midiskirt. In a proud statement of rebellion, women refused to give up their short skirts to embrace the new style. Firms in the fashion industry were left with millions of unsold midis, as well as the realization that consumer demand was the true industry driver.
But who else can get consumers excited about quality? The answer is simple: Teachers. Being a professor myself, I strongly believe in the power of curriculum to catalyze societal change. Teachers can impart skills and concepts that will help students identify quality in apparel, and understand the effect of their buying habits on their own lifestyle as well as on the environment and on other human beings. In part, I blame a lack of educational resources for the ongoing surge in overconsumption, and the average persons general ignorance about how products are made. In recent years, the programs that have traditionally exposed kids to important issues related to clothing purchasing have been wiped out by slashed budgets for public education and the Department of Agriculture.
Home economics programs (now known under various pseudonyms such as Human Environmental Sciences, etc.) and 4-H programs had their heyday in the 1950s, through the 1970s. Started in the 1800s as a way for young women to be self-sufficient (by sewing their own clothes, for instance), home economics evolved in the latter 1900s as a program to shape young men and women into resourceful and knowledgeable consumers. Similarly, one goal of todays 4-H programs is to teach kids not only how to make clothing, but also how to manage an apparel budget and to determine if apparel is well made. It is within the scope of such programs to include information on how clothing is manufactured, and to emphasize the consumers responsibility to seek out companies that pay their employees living wages and use organic fibers or nontoxic dyes. As home economics and 4-H programs have declined in number and importance, issues such as sustainability have become more problematic and widespread. I dont think that this is a coincidence.
Can apparel and fashion be sustainable? The answer is yes, but only if Americans change their way of thinking. To do this, apparel industry leaders, home economics teachers and 4-H leaders (to name just a few) can join forces and help convince the next generation of consumers that buying better and fewer clothes will not only benefit them, but also the planet.
Deborah J. C. Brosdahl is Associate Professor at the Department of Apparel, Textiles and Interior Design, College of Human Ecology, Kansas State University - Manhattan, KS
Reprinted courtesy of earthpledge.org. Earth Pledge has also published this book on the topic:
Money may make the world go ’round, as the song says, but given the whirlpool of global financial chaos that has been swirling around us for the past year, it would appear that the Earth is spinning out of control, with no brakes and little hope of slowdown if you listen only to the non-profits of doom.
Have we reached or will we reach the end of everything? Is capitalism the promised cure? Is socialism the poison pill? Is globalization the inevitable future for economic stability?
World economists argue and disagree upon the severity of the current crisis, and offer sometimes conflicting prescriptions to restore global economic health, while politicians pander to PAC agendas. But where does truth reside?
As we look at the future of money, and the economic climate of Planet Earth, we thought that there is no better way to face the challenges of tomorrow than by understanding the successes and failures of the past — the evolution of economics.
Ron Insana, senior financial analyst for CNBC, and a financial journalist for the past 25 years, also made forays into the world outside the newsroom, with his own hedge fund, and then as a managing director for SAC, one of the worlds most successful hedge-fund companies.
We have opened our special feature, Portals, to continuing conversations with Insana, for his insights, and occasional advice, as we attempt to navigate the turbulent financial waters that flow toward what some call an uncertain future.
t-f/c: What does history teach us about the way in which global economics evolves?
RI: Weve gone through an enormous revolution, both in economic practice and economic theory, over the course of human history. By the same token, some of the basic elements of economics have been at work as long as there have been civilized societies — whether older, primitive agrarian societies, or pastoral societies or beyond that mercantilist, capitalist, socialist or communist forms of economic structure.
Obviously, the ancients wouldnt recognize the moderns, when it comes to economics. Having said that, if you look at societies as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, youll find contracts, for lack of a better word, that mirror some of the more sophisticated derivatives that we use today.
t-f/c: In what way?
RI In the tendency toward economic behavior. Despite our most recent economic setback, the tendency is toward some form of capitalism as the most meritocratic way to allocate resources and wealth. And I dont think that thats going to go through some of the changes that some people anticipate today. Many are arguing that were heading toward something more socialistic in nature, even though most people dont understand capitalism and the way it works.
I doubt if were headed in that direction., and if we are, its a detour. Capitalism, as one famous person said is a terrible system of economics. The only ones worse are all the others.
Entrepreneurialism and technological development are better fostered in an environment like our own, than in most of the other systems that have been tried and failed. So capitalism appears to be the best economic system
Capitalism didnt exist prior to Adam Smith. It has its strengths and its weaknesses, in the sense that capitalism is (and this is an arguable point) a better way of allocating scarce resources; is a better way of fostering entrepreneurialism, innovation, technological advancement; and also is a better way of allocating reward, than any other.
People will make the case that those are arguable points. I dont see how they are, given that history has shown that neither communism nor socialism, the two biggest rival schools of economics, have done any better.
Communism has been an out-and-out failure, which we know from the Soviets and the Chinese, who no longer practice it. They have a command and control economy, but theres an element of capitalism that actually provides the engine of growth.
Socialism, as its constructed in Europe, or Social Democracy, has not benefited the economies of Continental Europe in the same manner as capitalism has in most of the Anglo-Saxon countries.
Theres also been a life-style choice a kind of trade-off between working to live and living to work which is something the Europeans talk about all the time they work to live the Anglo countries tend to live to work. So in certain instances, they have higher productivity, in some industries, and in other instances. Certainly, our rates of growth, our rates of unemployment, are much better, historically, than theirs. So, we could debate it for quite some time but I think the evidence is pretty strong that capitalism, without being xenophobic or jingoistic about it, is considerably better as an economic system
That having been said, there are forms and variations of the theme that have been tried, from unfettered free-market capitalism to something that has a greater degree of regulation and government intervention. Somewhere between the extremes of unfettered free-market capitalism and too much government interference appears to be the capitalist system that works best.
t-f/c: Do you see any other potential system evolving out of the current economic situation?
RI: I dont know I dont think so, because, at the moment, there arent any really credible alternatives. The notion that, somehow, large societies can achieve some sort of completely egalitarian state seems to be a Utopian ideal that is less than practical.
t-f/c: Simply because of population?
RI: Partly.. smaller countries have had greater success with experimentation around equal distribution of wealth, socialized medicine work and living rules. But, when youre talking about 300 million people, its difficult to implement such a system (unless communism were practiced in a very pure form each according to his needs, etc.). First, I dont think humans tend toward economic equality. I think they tend toward accumulation.
Which is actually a post-14th Century phenomenon. One of the things that was interesting about the Plague, that the book, Connections, by James Burke, spoke about, was that one of the unexpected consequences of the Plague in Europe was that when the population was cut by half, suddenly materialism grew, because the survivors were able to accumulate the wealth that was left behind.
And there was an important change in the view of earthly existence that developed modern materialism. So, the notion of materialism may have accelerated the move toward capitalism which was largely defined by Adam Smith.
t-f/c: Which ran counter to religious philosophy?
RI: Not really. Religious philosophy prohibited things like usury, charging interest and profiteering, but obtaining wealth by brute force was never something that was frowned upon. People accumulated wealth as warriors, as emperors. The motivation might have different Divine Right of Kings, political power. Wealth was part of the trappings, and wasnt necessarily for wealths sake. Power might have been the greater motivation, at the time. But theres been no major civilization, to my knowledge, in which the ruling elite did not accumulate both wealth and power.
t-f/c: Despite the constant rumors of a single world currency as the key to a stable global economic future, you dont see that happening? Why not?
RI: Well, we have one its called the U.S. dollar. the de facto reserve currency of the world is the greenback. There are countries, which for various political purposes, are threatening to diversify away from dollar-denominated holdings of securities, whether theyre stocks or bonds, etc., in an effort to gain some political advantage over the United States. But, in reality, the most widely used currency in the world is the dollar, and will likely be so for quite some time, for a variety of reasons. The world is already dollarized, for all intents and purposes, and replacing a currency thats as dominant as the dollar requires (particularly in the sense of a one-world currency) harmonizing the economic policies of every country on Earth that wishes to participate in a singe currency structure. Much in the way the European Union wanted to create the Euro. That process began in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome, after World War II, when it was decided that Germany was required to attach its economic fortunes to France, so that it would be disinclined to attack its neighbors in the future. And that led to the European Common Market, which led to the European Union, and harmonization of economic policies in Europe. Ultimately, that led to a managed exchange-rate mechanism which ultimately led to a single currency in Europe.
And, were still not sure that is stable. The economic policies of the countries in Europe are still wildly disparate. They have not ever maintained the criteria that is each country is required to maintain to support a single currency. They dont have a singular central bank that has the type of mandate the Federal Reserve does that allows them to have an effective continent-wide monetary policy which is required for maintaining a stable single currency. All of that is a little heady; what I’m really saying is that they have not worked out the kinks they should have worked out, prior to instituting the Euro.
Given that experiment, its hard to see how you can take however many hundreds of countries there are in the world and create a system under which you have a single global central bank, harmonized economic policies among all the countries on the planet, where theyve contained their budget deficits to three percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (as is required by the Europeans). There are certain parameters around which their economies have to function in order to maintain the stability of the currency. Now its almost impossible on a global scale. Given the fact that the world is mostly dollarized, I dont see a credible competitor to the dollar, in the near term.
t-f/c: Isnt that philosophy of stability the reason this issue keeps coming up? Some people think that is the only way that the world may find financial solvency, in the near and long-term future?
RI: This is where George Soros goes with equilibrium theory hes got his own ideas about how to stabilize the global economy, through a notion he calls reflexivity. And, ultimately, that will lead to some sort of alternative to the dollar, through the International Monetary Fund issuing something called special drawing rights its a very complex structure that hes talking about. And it is 44 percent comprised of the dollar, anyway.
Complex systems, as we know from Chaos Theory, are inherently unstable, so I dont know how you go from the relative stability that we have right now, to achieving a greater degree of stability when youre trying to manage the entire planet with a single currency given that each country has its own set of political and economic concerns that have yet to be harmonized. You would need a single economic system, you would need a very cohesive political structure, which Europe doesnt even have, in order to create a single global currency. And I think anybody who contemplates that notion hasnt the foggiest idea of what he or she is talking about, when it comes to global economics. First of all, its not achievable in our lifetime, and second, if it ever is, it would involve the dissolution of nation states and a much more harmonious global environment than we currently have. Chinas purchases of U.S. bonds keep interest rates down, and by extension, allow the U.S. economy to keep growing, so they can keep selling to our market.
If we have a collapse of the U.S. economic system, which we flirted with, dangerously, just a few months ago, China, as we saw from their export figures in the Spring, will suffer far worse than we will. So, a lot of this talk, to be utterly frank, is B.S. and is political posturing, and has nothing to do with economics.
t-f/c: So, therefore clearly, we have reached a point in which all international economies are interdependent. What does that mean for the future of money?
RI: Same story, really. Money is money. Its fungible. Were not going to see the disappearance of major currencies, I dont think, in our lifetime, or major currency blocks, for that matter. The Yuan (Chinese currency), which people are increasingly excited about, or Renminbi (RMB) — one is for domestic consumption, one is for trade — is gaining some traction at the outer edges of China as a tradable currency, but its not fully convertible. Its still managed by the Peoples Bank of China in a fixed exchange-rate regime, which is somewhat inflexible and problematic.
I dont know moneys money whatever is a storehouse of wealth, a means of exchange that facilitates trade is money, whether its gold, whether its paper, whether its an electronic entry, then thats the evolution.
Increasingly, were becoming more and more electronic and its a book entry. However uncomfortable people might be with that — thats more relevant than which currency is dominant on the planet.
One thing Ill say is that the experiment being tried right now with the U.S. dollar, is that we are the largest net debtor nation in the world that continues to borrow in its own currency. If we were to ever have a dollar crisis, while it would drive interest rates up, potentially, here at home, the net result would be to effectively screw our overseas bond holders because they would be paid back in devalued dollars. They would lose money. This is their chief concern that they would lose money on their holdings of U.S. Treasuries or other investments. Most net debtor nations are required to borrow in the currency of the lender. Which is why weve seen currency crises in the past (like the Russian rubble crisis in 1998, or the Asian currency crisis in 1997), cause such havoc in those economies, because, effectively, their outstanding foreign debts increased by twice the magnitude of the decline in their currencies. In other words, if their purchasing power was cut in half, that meant their debt to foreigners doubled over night. That is, effectively, what happened in Asia in 97 and Russia in 98. and so, it becomes an extraordinary burden to pay back that external debt.
Whereas, instead of defaulting on our debt because of the devaluation of the currency, we actually end up benefiting, because were inflating the debt away with devalued dollars. Its an old political trick, quite frankly, and it works to our benefit.
t-f/c: Well, if the world were to move to a totally electronic monetary system, how is the asset value determined? Is it just perceived value… if there is no actual physical money backing it?
RI: The notion of physical money is an interesting construct, given that loadstones, seashells, wampum and
other forms of currency were used to represent a medium of exchange, a storehouse of value, however you want to define the primary functions of money. It was either gold, precious metals, base metals, paper currency that was backed by gold or silver. Or then, just paper money and credit.
The fact that weve evolved toward an electronic book entry, which is quantified in dollars, is just part of the evolution of money. You work for a sum, and the sum is deposited in your account, electronically. And so you are trading your work for that electronic entry, which really is no more abstract than getting a piece of gold, which someone, somewhere, decided, because of its relative scarcity, was one of the most valuable commodities on the planet.
In reality, its just a commodity. Diamonds are not nearly as scarce as they used to be, whether theyre manufactured, or whether theres a glut of diamonds, worldwide, because the Russians have become such prolific producers, along with South Africa. Whats to say that there couldnt be some extraordinary find of gold that would alter its value?
Its unlikely, because even today, the entire amount of gold thats been mined in the history of the planet could fill about one-third of the Washington Monument (http://money.howstuffworks.com/question213.htm). Its a relatively scarce commodity. But the fact that people still harbor the desire to go back to the gold standard is as arbitrary as any other construct, when it comes to money.
An electronic system is not really that much more abstract than swapping a loadstone for a sheep. How do you determine the value of a sheep, versus the value of a cow? Depends on who needs it more. These are relatively abstract concepts, even though theyre seemingly more acceptable because theyre physical. But were kind of past the point where a barter-style economy, or a gold-standard makes any sense.
t-f/c: But even when your employer deposits your paycheck electronically, there still has to be some tangible asset represented by the electronic deposit.
RI: You can withdraw cash. I suspect there has to be some physical currency to be utilized. Although, I would say 100 years from now, that might not be the case.
t-f/c: What would the nature of the asset exchange be?
RI: Why would the value change? The value is what the value is. Its based on what people perceive as whatever the value of an hours worth of work or an hours worth of entertainment or an hours worth of output happens to be. Thats the value determinant. Or, on a relative basis, given the political and economic health of a particular country, whats the value of a currency, vis a vis the political stability and economic output of another country? Those are perception-based values that change from time to time.
t-f/c: How does all of this affect the future of trade?
RI: Well, assuming that we dont have another extraordinary setback that leads to something more like a great depression than a great recession, global trade will continue, and with any luck at all, will continue to broaden ad raise living standards of developing nations, Unfortunately, to a certain extent, that comes at the expense of developed nations. But it doesnt have to be a zero-sum game. And economics isnt despite the fact that many people say it is.
Living standards can rise through greater exposure to, or among, developing and developed nations as money and capital move toward the place that has comparative advantage for certain industries. So, as that globalization process continues, assuming that it does, it certainly alters the economic playing field. It may alter the balance of political power, But, on balance, its a good thing.
And again, barring any further disruptions, I suspect, or any move toward trade-protectionism, the tendency toward globalization is fairly strong.
There are too many technological developments now, that make it difficult to go back, unlike prior periods in history. Whether its the Internet, or whether its the ease of travel, whether its electronic communications — its too easy to connect with others, relative to the past.
Which means that not just our interdependence, but our interactivity, tend to increase and foster more and more, rather than less and less, globalization.
t-f/c: What do you say about the fringe futurists who talk about the New World Order — the idea that theres a shadow government pulling all the strings, behind the economic scenes, and that our future is a bleak one under such elite rule?
RI: That just B.S. Thats been around for a thousand years; the Illuminati and all that. Anybody whos worked in a large corporation knows that any large group of individuals cant even make a singular decision on what to have for lunch. Ruling the world is not that easy. Theres too much evidence against conspiracy theories.
Ill use oil prices as an example, where OPEC has tried to be an effective cartel for over 30 years now. And theyve been so effective that from 1986 to 2000, the price of oil was somewhere between $15 and $20 per barrel, generating billions of dollars of losses for major oil companies and depleted reserves for the members of the cartel. And then, between 2002 and 2007, we had a super spike in oil that took it from about $30 per barrel to about $147 per barrel.
And everybody was crying conspiracy, and the conspiracy lasted for the entire time that the global economy was growing at such a clip that the supply-and-demand balance in petroleum products was historically narrow. And you had geo-political influences that helped drive up the price of oil, and the risk premium that was placed on oil as a commodity was much higher than normal because of Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Venezuela, difficulties in Saudi Arabia — all manner of influences that coalesced to drive oil prices to record highs, both in plain dollar terms and inflation-adjusted terms.
Since then, oil has gone from $147 per barrel to a low of $34 in March, and back to about $70 today. So, if there were a conspiracy, it is a very poorly executed one — unless the five-year run has now created enough accumulated wealth to offset all future losses that would come from declining energy prices.
So, its nonsense, and this is something that Bill OReilly of Fox News was pushing so hard in the fourth quarter of 2005 — that there was a group of people getting together in a room and dictating what the price of oil should be.
That would be all well and good, if the volatility of oil prices wasnt so extraordinarily high. If you really want a conspiracy, you want $100 oil, forever.
And they dont have it. So, they either are so good at hiding the conspiracy through extraordinary volatility or it cant be done. And theres more evidence that it cant be done on a sustained basis, than to the contrary.
Markets can be jiggled with or manipulated, for short periods of time, as we saw with gold, silver and the Hunt brothers debacle in 1980; as we saw with Italian conglomerate FerruzziFinanziarias attempt to manipulate grain prices in the mid-1990s; as we saw with Sumitomo Corps attempt to control copper prices in the 1990s. These games can only last for so long. Theres no grand-scale manipulation that everybody talks about. People can attempt it, but everyone whos attempted a long-term manipulation and a long-term conspiracy, has failed miserably.
One of the great things about the Illuminati, if you read about it on the Web, in terms of a one-world government is that, as the one-world government continues to form, these individuals who are at the center of it had become so subtle, having failed at every attempt to achieve their one-world government, that now, we dont even notice their influence. Which is a great argument for saying that theyve failed completely and it doesnt work. And now, theyre so underground and so secretly manipulative that we dont even know its happening. And that would be a form of thought control that is inconceivable and also flies in the face of the success of that type of structure.
t-f/c: What do you see happening, domestically, in the next year, five years, 10 years?
RI: Well theres an interesting three-way battle going on right now, among Washington, Wall Street and Main Street. Washington is reflecting some of the populist anger thats arisen from what were clearly excesses that took place on Wall Street over the past several years. Wall Street is fighting to retain its independence and its ability to innovate, financially, to put it gracefully. And Washington is trying to come up with some sort of hybrid environment in which there is more balance between unfettered free-market capitalism, which knows no bounds, or no limits on compensation, for that matter — and, something that is more responsible when it comes to compensation, risk management and innovation that rewards Wall Street disproportionally, relative to Main Street.
Now some of that is a perceptual problem, some of thats a reality. We have the widest gap between rich and poor thats ever existed in this country, and thats causing certain social strains.
By the same token, Im not sure that the current administration has the foggiest idea what it needs to do to put the economy back into the delicate balance that allows for rewards to be dispersed appropriately among the population.
And these are old friends of mine, many of them have gone completely off the rails, in recent months.
So I think theres going to be a struggle. I think at the end of the day, the Obama Administration will lose more than it wins when it comes to trying to clamp down, whether its health care reform, financial regulatory reform, climate change legislation. I think that, given that most presidents are visitors rather than permanent residents of Washington, the powers that be — which turn out to be in the Capitol as opposed to the White House, and in the lobbying groups, in industry — will turn back the more ambitious agendas, for something thats somewhat more watered down. That, I think, ultimately, is a good thing,
Regulatory overreach, or dramatic change thats enacted hastily, without full understanding of unintended consequences, will largely get beaten back. At least thats my hope. In the longer run, its a crapshoot.
Assuming that we get past whatever remaining headwinds we have in this crisis, the U. S. economy, as people have said, over and over again, has been remarkably resilient and tends to bounce back from these crises, more dramatically than people anticipate — whichever crisis you want to pick: 9/11; the bursting of the Internet bubble; the economic and banking crisis of 1990/1991; the biggest recession we ever had, prior to this one, from 1980 to 1982, where we had double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, double-digit interest rates.
When the tide turns, it tends to turn for real, and you can get a protracted economic recovery thats stronger and more durable than most people think. So that is the hope. The Federal Reserve has done a great job of helping to pull us back from the brink and possibly even engineer that kind of recovery. We may have a W recession, if you will, or a double-dip recession, and a W bottom in the stock market who knows? Thats my first inclination. But that concept is beginning to draw a little too much attention, which, now instead of putting me in the minority, is starting to put me in the consensus. So, Im beginning to take the W off my screen and put up a V and think that the economy might just take off like a rocket and surprise everybody. Because economies and markets do that.
Weve had an extraordinary rally off the bottom from March, in the stock market, that has caught everybody by surprise. The people who are still bearish and think were going to hell in a hand basket just missed the opportunity to make 50% on their money, in the last four months, and will continue to say that were in a recession, even after GDP turns positive.
So, I think the near-term picture is probably a little brighter than most people realize. The longer-term picture revolves less around things like health care and financial market regulatory reform than it does around education. That is where we still come up horrifically short, when it comes to preparing children for an entirely competitive global marketplace, in which the only way to be rewarded is to be educated and to be an innovator.
Thats where the U.S. is falling farther and farther behind. And I think thats the most important and least-discussed issue (at least, discussed honestly), in a way that would have some meaningful consequences for children.
t-f/c: What do you think the administration has to do to set the stage for our best possible future?
RI: The attempts that theyre undertaking right now would probably represent headwinds, rather than stimulus. I dont think health care reform is going to stimulate the economy. And I certainly dont think that financial market regulatory reform, even though it may be necessary, is a stimulant. And I dont think that climate change legislation would stimulate economic activity. The best I hope for is that the administration does very little that is restrictive and does as much as possible that is stimulative. And that they dont make the types of policy mistakes that get in the way of an economic recovery.
Art Insana is Co-founder/Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the-future.com.
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