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scepticus

Overthinking Things About Debt,

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Here are a few thoughts about debt, liquidity and society, in which I wish to present some alternative perspectives on these much maligned phenomena, and I think the best way to do this is to avoid discussing debt in relation to money and find a alternative view, much like a Fourier Transform allows us to switch between time and frequency domains.

Imagine a society with no debt, but with robust property rights and records. All physical assets, and all intangible capital like human capital are wholly owned by individual lawfully declared adults. This is quite an unsatisfactory situation, since the assets owned by any given individual are very vulnerable to natural disasters, changes in market preference for goods, specific locations/skills etc. A specialist worker may like to hedge his income, and a holder of a specialist asset (say some bee hives) may like to hedge his income from that asset.

Now allow each individual to incur debt (the denomination is not important for now) so as to encumber some of his asset base in return for claims over another's asset base. This is a more optimal economy - individuals are better hedged and the whole is better able to withstand technological/natural/social shocks. Call this 'ownership smearing'. People can own stuff they can't physically touch or directly employ.

Now let two individuals - man and wife say - share assets in common as a single legal entity. Clearly as per above this requires ownership smearing compared to the purely individual ownership case. Now allow joint ventures to exist as legal entities. More asset smearing.

Insurance is debt by another name.

Draw a graph structure in which each capital asset - a skill base - or a house - or a business - is a node, and edges between nodes are debt/asset pairs, with each edge annotated with the size of the asset/liability pair. The size could be marked in some unit of account (which is not in itself money, maybe pick KWh or something). If you like draw a boundary or declare some local association rule such that all nodes falling within the legal boundary of an individual are grouped and only external edges recorded.

Assess the *amplitude* of total debt as the sum of all *recorded* edge values.

Now assess the *frequency* with which edges may be torn down and re-instated in new configurations (presumably searching for some new optimal graph of asset smearing in response to external and internal events).

Assess the liquidity of the whole system as being total_amplitude x total_frequency. Or better, define some similar yet more sophisticated metric taking account of both size and rate of change subject to the existing graph structure at any one time.

Assess the speculative component of liquidity as that part of the liquidity metric to be that part of it which continues to change even when there is no change in external conditions and no major changes in the graph structure. Clearly at times of great change in external conditions and/or changes in the graph structure, we might expect the speculative component to be higher.

Consider snapped edges as defaults, representing a loss of complexity and information inherent in the graph structure. Given a complex non linear network, the level of such damage that can be sustained before a major disruptive and possibly fatal phase transition in the whole dynamic structure is difficult to know. Various works on information saturation suggest that in many cases, the forgetting/deletion of information can be beneficial.

Next consider that the whole complex structure evolves some behaviours that allow it to persist in semi-stable form and exhibit some system memory based on past events so it can optimise to handle future eventualities so it can evolve at a controlled rate. These patterns would be manifest from an individual node perspective as both hard constraints and soft constraints on its choices, or *degrees of freedom*.

If the graph structure has a tendency to increase complexity, then it needs to both be able to increase the number of nodes and increase the number edges, as well as to draw increasingly non-local edges between nodes.

Finally, eliminate humans from the picture entirely and consider the graph nodes as being instances of physical structure like houses, roads, cities and information stores, and humans as merely agents (ant-like) which constantly re-arrange the graph relationship between these much longer lived entities which ultimately constitute our civilizational footprint and memory.

I don't claim that any of the above yields any defensible economic/political/social policy prescriptions, I write it merely to present a different and hopefully apolitical window through which it is possible to view the many and varied changes discussed on this forum, in the hope that one or two people may find it of some small use in navigating the long run changes we are all involved in.

If this strikes anyone as completely irrelevant nonsense then please accept my apologies in advance along with a suggestion to find something more worthy of your time.

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I understand about half of what you wrote but what I think you are saying is that debt could be viewed as a kind of shock absorber that spreads risk around the system and diffuses it by allowing people to blur ownership rights in return for less exposure to catastrophic loss.

This actually seems to be what was claimed for the securitzation of debt as practiced by the banks prior to the meltdown- that they had somehow eliminated risk by spreading it more widely.

But in practice what happened was that the blurring of risk collapsed the system because no one could be sure where their own exposure to risk began and ended.

So in that case at least debt did not in fact create a more robust system but a more fragile one.

We know that in the real world the way to contain the risk of a dangerous contagion is to quarantine it- but the bankers argued that the solution was to spread it as widely as possible- almost as if they had a model in which risk could be eliminated if sufficiently diluted- a sort of homeopathy model- instead of which they killed the patient.

So is it in fact correct to view debt as a way to mitigate risk- or does it simply spread it more widely?

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Here are a few thoughts about debt, liquidity and society, in which I wish to present some alternative perspectives on these much maligned phenomena, and I think the best way to do this is to avoid discussing debt in relation to money and find a alternative view, much like a Fourier Transform allows us to switch between time and frequency domains.

Imagine a society with no debt, but with robust property rights and records. All physical assets, and all intangible capital like human capital are wholly owned by individual lawfully declared adults. This is quite an unsatisfactory situation, since the assets owned by any given individual are very vulnerable to natural disasters, changes in market preference for goods, specific locations/skills etc. A specialist worker may like to hedge his income, and a holder of a specialist asset (say some bee hives) may like to hedge his income from that asset.

Now allow each individual to incur debt (the denomination is not important for now) so as to encumber some of his asset base in return for claims over another's asset base. This is a more optimal economy - individuals are better hedged and the whole is better able to withstand technological/natural/social shocks. Call this 'ownership smearing'. People can own stuff they can't physically touch or directly employ.

Now let two individuals - man and wife say - share assets in common as a single legal entity. Clearly as per above this requires ownership smearing compared to the purely individual ownership case. Now allow joint ventures to exist as legal entities. More asset smearing.

Insurance is debt by another name.

Draw a graph structure in which each capital asset - a skill base - or a house - or a business - is a node, and edges between nodes are debt/asset pairs, with each edge annotated with the size of the asset/liability pair. The size could be marked in some unit of account (which is not in itself money, maybe pick KWh or something). If you like draw a boundary or declare some local association rule such that all nodes falling within the legal boundary of an individual are grouped and only external edges recorded.

Assess the *amplitude* of total debt as the sum of all *recorded* edge values.

Now assess the *frequency* with which edges may be torn down and re-instated in new configurations (presumably searching for some new optimal graph of asset smearing in response to external and internal events).

Assess the liquidity of the whole system as being total_amplitude x total_frequency. Or better, define some similar yet more sophisticated metric taking account of both size and rate of change subject to the existing graph structure at any one time.

Assess the speculative component of liquidity as that part of the liquidity metric to be that part of it which continues to change even when there is no change in external conditions and no major changes in the graph structure. Clearly at times of great change in external conditions and/or changes in the graph structure, we might expect the speculative component to be higher.

Consider snapped edges as defaults, representing a loss of complexity and information inherent in the graph structure. Given a complex non linear network, the level of such damage that can be sustained before a major disruptive and possibly fatal phase transition in the whole dynamic structure is difficult to know. Various works on information saturation suggest that in many cases, the forgetting/deletion of information can be beneficial.

Next consider that the whole complex structure evolves some behaviours that allow it to persist in semi-stable form and exhibit some system memory based on past events so it can optimise to handle future eventualities so it can evolve at a controlled rate. These patterns would be manifest from an individual node perspective as both hard constraints and soft constraints on its choices, or *degrees of freedom*.

If the graph structure has a tendency to increase complexity, then it needs to both be able to increase the number of nodes and increase the number edges, as well as to draw increasingly non-local edges between nodes.

Finally, eliminate humans from the picture entirely and consider the graph nodes as being instances of physical structure like houses, roads, cities and information stores, and humans as merely agents (ant-like) which constantly re-arrange the graph relationship between these much longer lived entities which ultimately constitute our civilizational footprint and memory.

I don't claim that any of the above yields any defensible economic/political/social policy prescriptions, I write it merely to present a different and hopefully apolitical window through which it is possible to view the many and varied changes discussed on this forum, in the hope that one or two people may find it of some small use in navigating the long run changes we are all involved in.

If this strikes anyone as completely irrelevant nonsense then please accept my apologies in advance along with a suggestion to find something more worthy of your time.

You missed the big hole in the middle hollowed out by greedy bankers and politicians.

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You missed the big hole in the middle hollowed out by greedy bankers and politicians.

No, that was addressed in this line:

it needs to both be able to increase the number of nodes and increase the number edges, as well as to draw increasingly non-local edges between nodes

i.e. records of the graph are used themselves as new nodes. A kind of recursive fractal growing of the graph.

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Debt isnt about hedging, its more about borrowing against future income to smooth out consumption patterns (e.g. it may be better for me to spend part of the money I will make in the future on something I need now, rather than waiting until I get the money). The obvious example where this is rational is when the money is spent on something which will raise my future income because its a win-win (for example borrowing to fund education in the case of a person, or to fund infrastructure in the case of a government), but it is also sensible for more mundane reasons if I want to buy something that will improve the quality of my life immediately (eg hire purchase on a computer or fridge).

One of the basic problems in human life is that we dont have access to the money we earn at the time when we most need it - most people will have their salary peak when they are in their 40s, but the time of life which is most important from the point of view of 'establishing yourself' is the 18-30 year old period. However it is common for people to be be quite 'poor' during their 20s since their earnings are still very much short of their lifetime maximum. For most people, they would be better off if they could take some of the money they will earn in their 40s and use it in their 20s instead, since thats when it will have the most impact. Physics obviously does not allow people to time-travel into the future for this purpose, but debt to some extent plays the same role.

Edited by Smyth

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Indeed Sceppy...take away the humans and the system keeps going...I say...float the banks off into space.

Indeed, I said this some weeks ago...for they dont need us.

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Debt isnt about hedging, its more about borrowing against future income to smooth out consumption patterns (e.g. it may be better for me to spend part of the money I will make in the future on something I need now, rather than waiting until I get the money). The obvious example where this is rational is when the money is spent on something which will raise my future income because its a win-win (for example borrowing to fund education in the case of a person, or to fund infrastructure in the case of a government), but it is also sensible for more mundane reasons if I want to buy something that will improve the quality of my life immediately (eg hire purchase on a computer or fridge).

One of the basic problems in human life is that we dont have access to the money we earn at the time when we most need it - most people will have their salary peak when they are in their 40s, but the time of life which is most important from the point of view of 'establishing yourself' is the 18-30 year old period. However it is common for people to be be quite 'poor' during their 20s since their earnings are still very much short of their lifetime maximum. For most people, they would be better off if they could take some of the money they will earn in their 40s and use it in their 20s instead, since thats when it will have the most impact. Physics obviously does not allow people to time-travel into the future for this purpose, but debt to some extent plays the same role.

I agree that debt is largely about borrowing from the future - and is ok if the future looks brighter.

So if you have big debts in your 40s - you probably will struggle to pay them off.

For many, kids start getting expensive around then, there's little job security now, future earnings past 55 will probably be lower. Healthcare scares more likely.

What's the average age for first time buyers now...?

When would they expect to pay off the mortgage - 60-65, even higher?

The prices and levels of debt are too high. Work patterns are unfavorable.

It doesn't work any more.

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Surely it's savings that are a hedge against risk? Okay, debt can be a substitute for savings in an emergency, so to speak, but I can't help but feel that you are mistaking the goal (reducing risk) with a method? Apart from that, I may be missing something, but I don't quite get the mechanism that translates debt into shared risk. If the creditor has problems, then he can call in his debt and weather it out, but what about the debtor? A farmer takes on debt to buy seed, but a poor harvest sees him wiped out - what then? Insurance in some form would help, but why do you class that the same as debt?

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I think someone once said "All property is theft." Whilst personally I am a capitalist, I can see where he comes from.

It wasnt Marx, it was Proudhon, and it didnt include consumption goods or the houses that people lived in. The distinction was between the 'possessions' that people used for everyday living (consumption goods, housing, etc), and capital goods (which Marx would later call means of production). The anarchist/Marxist objection was to private ownership of the latter, not the former.

Edited by Smyth

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snip.

Personally I take a more Georgist view than a Marxian one. Each would have to pay for (exclusive) use of that land/property. snip

to whom does one pay?

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I understand about half of what you wrote but what I think you are saying is that debt could be viewed as a kind of shock absorber that spreads risk around the system and diffuses it by allowing people to blur ownership rights in return for less exposure to catastrophic loss.

This actually seems to be what was claimed for the securitzation of debt as practiced by the banks prior to the meltdown- that they had somehow eliminated risk by spreading it more widely.

Securitisation is just risk pooling, and so is standard banking. In both cases a large number of small investors take slices of "ownership" of larger assets and projects that are too large to be wholly held by one investor. Banks have many depositors and relatively less loans/borrowers. In the same way, investors in MBS are taking lots of small slices of real world assets rather than one or two big slices. In both cases, ownership is necessarily via intermediate legal entities (banks, SPVs etc).

But in practice what happened was that the blurring of risk collapsed the system because no one could be sure where their own exposure to risk began and ended.

Insurance blurs risk in the same way. Ownership smearing and risk sharing is inherent in banking, insurance and securitisation. As I tried to point out, it is also present in any joint venture including say, a marriage. The number of levels of indirection and intermediate legal/abstract entities in the chain does matter of course but the graph structure is similar.

So in that case at least debt did not in fact create a more robust system but a more fragile one.

Over-connectedness is a well known phenomena in mature systems which reach complexity limits, and yes it does tend to make them fragile, yet efficient (for some set of narrow external conditions).

So yes if we tot up the systems leverage by counting edges between nodes there are some limits above which the system becomes unstable, in which case we'd expect it to de-complexify until it reaches some stable level of debt, although the individual nodes and connections may turn over. The question is, what is the right level of connectedness?

We know that in the real world the way to contain the risk of a dangerous contagion is to quarantine it-

Do we know that? I don't think that is correct.

So is it in fact correct to view debt as a way to mitigate risk- or does it simply spread it more widely?

Risk is not reduced, but risk which is spread to some degree is more optimal than concentrated risk for the system as a whole - up to limits where fragility sets in. Both the system with few edges between nodes and systems with too many edges, are fragile and probably inefficient. Robustness is to be found in between.

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Debt isnt about hedging, its more about borrowing against future income to smooth out consumption patterns

That is simply an argument that suggests that debt helps the system approach a pareto efficient distribution of resources, which is pretty much the foundation of economics via Ricardo/Pareto et al.

The problem with your statement above is it take an arbitrary viewpoint from a single net borrower, rather than the 'average node' which is necessarily a node with net zero liabilities. Likewise, it ignores the purpose of debt in the whole system.

When a saver lends they do so to hedge against future income being insufficient in an uncertain world. There may be some certainties like the quantity of money needed for a deposit on a house, but that house deposit saver has options, they could just put cash (or tinned beans) under the bed, but this is risky AND inefficient so instead they prefer to take a claim on some other economic entity (or better, a set of hopefully uncorrelated entities). Savers are clearly hedgers then.

According to the symmetry of assets/liabilities, then borrowers must be hedging against something. Consider the tinned bans in the basement mode of saving. If I agree with that saver to take his beans in return for a claim, I have done so because I wish to take some ownership of those beans, because I have a better use to put them to than the saver does, in return for some ownership in my personal capital, whatever that may be. The fact that some aspects of capital have a temporal aspect doesn't alter the basic point that debt is about hedging. It is easiest to see this when you consider the thought experiment without money.

In fact even the tinned beans have a spatio-temporal aspect because they have a shelf life and a carrying cost, as well as physical storage requirements.

Using the language of 'borrowing from the future' is thus highly misleading philosophically, and espouses an unwarrantedly narrow perspective. Clearly, the system as a whole does not 'borrow from the future' because it can't - it is a closed system and there is no outside entity it can establish a net liability position with (e.g. no trade with mars). Therefore all the debt is distributional, and the system goal is presumably pareto efficiency.

In so far as the whole system can 'save', it is restricted to its current inventory of goods and un-deployed skills, and that store of inventory has a carrying cost and a shelf life. The system as a whole can 'borrow from the future' by running down its inventory, but this isn't borrowing since it already possesses the inventory.

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Clearly that is the key assumption that society structures derive from.

It needs to be turned on its head and people who wish to retain exclusive access need to pay rents for that privilege.

Well, that's what we are building, a society of renters., we just aren't there yet so it seems some are doing better than others.

At zirp we are all basically renting, Those receiving the rents are bank depositors, who are also the ones paying the rents. Don't be distracted by the fact some are doing better than others from this arrangement - firstly that will settle out a bit over time, and secondly, there will always be inequality with access limits imposed on specific nodes by virtue of the stable graph structure.

Maybe zirp tells us that the graph connectivity has reached a maximum, or possibly a stable point close to pareto efficiency as it can come subject to inevitable nash equilibria. Or maybe zirp tells us that we've been sucked into a nash equilibrium from which it is hard to escape.

In terms of visualising a nash equilibria in my graph structure, I guess it would be one in which the turnover of edges between nodes has declined to a minimum.

Maybe.

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Perhaps borrowers borrow simply because they can (and in doing so, wittingly or not, they're transferring risk to savers/lenders), and maybe savers moslty save because 1. they're paid too much and 2. they lack imagination.

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Perhaps borrowers borrow simply because they can (and in doing so, wittingly or not, they're transferring risk to savers/lenders), and maybe savers moslty save because 1. they're paid too much and 2. they lack imagination.

Well that certainly wasn't the case if you wind things back 100 years or so, to a time when most people neither borrowed nor saved, or at least not in the way people understand the terms today.

So there are a good deal more edges per node than there used to be. If it is now easier to setup and tear down new edges, then why has that come about?

Like I said, I am not trying to make a case for this or that, in this post, merely to highlight a possibly more useful way of building mental pictures and models of what lies 'under the hood' of commonly discussed tropes like 'debt' and 'liquidity'.

Thinking of debt as 'borrowing form the future' is functionally equivalent, subject to certain narrow assumptions about perspective, to the graph structure I have outlined. In the same way that a waveform in the time dimension is equivalent to its fourier transformed presentation in the frequency domain. Often times, the latter is a good deal more useful in understanding things than the former.

For example, if we could draw the graph structure form 150 years ago and then draw corresponding structures from 75 years ago and 1 year ago I'm sure a wealth of useful details would be revealed. Or even simply draw the graph for the UK and for Germany.

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You know there is a distinction between paying rents to private owners and paying rent to society for redistribution across your pyramid/network/nodes/energy lifeform (delete as appropriate).

My point was that the rents paid to private owners having pretty low yield are mainly diffused via the banking system to millions of retail depositors who in turn pay the rents back into the system via mortages or rents on their own properties.

It is the diffuseness of the rent distribution - when all parties have been considered and all intermediaries traversed, that matters and in that sense although the structures are notionally private the effect is very similar to paying 'rent to society'.

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Well that certainly wasn't the case if you wind things back 100 years or so, to a time when most people neither borrowed nor saved, or at least not in the way people understand the terms today.

So there are a good deal more edges per node than there used to be. If it is now easier to setup and tear down new edges, then why has that come about?

Like I said, I am not trying to make a case for this or that, in this post, merely to highlight a possibly more useful way of building mental pictures and models of what lies 'under the hood' of commonly discussed tropes like 'debt' and 'liquidity'.

Thinking of debt as 'borrowing form the future' is functionally equivalent, subject to certain narrow assumptions about perspective, to the graph structure I have outlined. In the same way that a waveform in the time dimension is equivalent to its fourier transformed presentation in the frequency domain. Often times, the latter is a good deal more useful in understanding things than the former.

For example, if we could draw the graph structure form 150 years ago and then draw corresponding structures from 75 years ago and 1 year ago I'm sure a wealth of useful details would be revealed. Or even simply draw the graph for the UK and for Germany.

Which appears to agree with my point.

100 years ago borrowers largely couldn't and savers probably had far more imagination and far less need for a banking system. They invested in their local communitis, set up independent businesses, responded to rental demand by building houses in their communities and so on.

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Basically you're stating Keynes' "euthanasia of the rentier" who he considered to be those obtaining interest rather than the more widely judged landlord. I think in terms of those demanding a traditional yield you are perhaps correct on a per monetary unit basis but I'm not so certain in total.

I imagine that in my schema the rate of interest is related to the marginal utility of adding new edges between nodes., judged either from the perspective of individual nodes (averaged or whatever) or from the system as a whole (in which case we need to determine the systems measure of utility). I'm not sure of much detail beyond that, except my intuition tells me that zirp in which we have about the right number of edges between nodes is probably a system optimum of some kind, maybe pareto efficient.

Either way, if the real rate is near zero or sub zero then in general there is nothing to be gained from adding more edges. Again, as per my schema this would affect my liquidity metric negatively.

Plus, sadly I also fear not with regard to traditional landlordism. Artificial shortages of housing means they can increase rents and corner more and more of the market until wages can bear no more. And whilst that process continues demand falls as 'rentiers' fail to consume in replacement and they proceed to corner more and more of the market. Their power grows and grows such that they warp democratic processes, media, education such that violent overthrow becomes the only solution.

Let me have a think about that and get back to you.

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Which appears to agree with my point.

100 years ago borrowers largely couldn't and savers probably had far more imagination and far less need for a banking system.

No, there simply was no sensible mechanism for the vast majority of people to borrow money OR deposit what very little surplus they had.

Going back to the graph schema and what I said above to HAM, the utility of adding extra debt edges depends on the utility gained by a new one less the cost of setting it up. The costs then were simply too high for most to make adding a debt edge - either liability or asset - worthwhile regardless of what they could imagine.

Of course back in the 18th/19th centuries lots of debt edges were being added, but by the government to and from local elites and foreign elites. That's what built the empire, according to Niall Fergusson, and on that point alone, I agree with him.

If the barriers/transaction costs to setting up and tearing down debt connections for the general populace are now much lower, then something important has changed.

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The prices and levels of debt are too high. Work patterns are unfavorable.

It doesn't work any more.

Says it all really- we have a system that is massively skewed toward the interests of rentiers while it systematically whittles away at the earning power and job security of those paying the rents- hard to see how such a system can continue to function for very long.

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How do you think cryptocurrencies fit into your graph, or is that an irrelevant question?

Also there's certainly an extent to which more edges are being forced into existence not by the decisions of ordinary people but by the decisions of politicians e.g. with the ever growing student loan system

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No, there simply was no sensible mechanism for the vast majority of people to borrow money OR deposit what very little surplus they had.

Going back to the graph schema and what I said above to HAM, the utility of adding extra debt edges depends on the utility gained by a new one less the cost of setting it up. The costs then were simply too high for most to make adding a debt edge - either liability or asset - worthwhile regardless of what they could imagine.

Of course back in the 18th/19th centuries lots of debt edges were being added, but by the government to and from local elites and foreign elites. That's what built the empire, according to Niall Fergusson, and on that point alone, I agree with him.

If the barriers/transaction costs to setting up and tearing down debt connections for the general populace are now much lower, then something important has changed.

I know nothing about random graph theory and precious little about Nash... but I'd question the assumption that your graphs need to be optimising or Pareto efficient. The real economy, unlike its neoclassical sylphids, is neither static, nor stable nor equilibrium-restoring. A dynamic, unstable, equilibrium-disturbing model is what we need. Does the general populace tear down and create debt structures? Isn't it the banking class which does this? Surely the principal difference between the C19th and today is the size of financial markets and their importance. Indeed, the quasi-privatisation of money which came after the creation of the Federal Reserve seems to have ensured that the economic depressions which were commonplace 100-150yrs ago were much less of a feature in the C20th, the Great Depression excepted.

Edited by zugzwang

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Says it all really- we have a system that is massively skewed toward the interests of rentiers while it systematically whittles away at the earning power and job security of those paying the rents- hard to see how such a system can continue to function for very long.

I was going to quote his post too, and use those 2 lines.

The availability of easy credit (debt) is now embedded in asset prices. This is unfortunate, but there we are.

I've often tried to make people aware of the distinction between the affordability of an asset and its value. Debt has driven up prices to fill the available affordability, in a pro-cyclical, positive feedback loop.

Some clear systems thinking is required - everything affects everything.

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