About Alton Drew

I graduated from the Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in economics and political science (1984); a Master of Public Administration (1993); and a Juris Doctor (1999). You can follow me on Twitter @altondrew.

Some thoughts on how I model the economy

This is still a work in progress. The old saying is money makes the world go ‘round. Spoken from a consumerist view, the conclusion I can understand. You want to eat, sleep, and shit in relative peace and safety you need coin. Lately I have been taken a harder look at my role in this political-economic ecosystem. I have concluded that we are merely extraction points for tax and sales revenues with intravenous tubing going into one side of our bodies and coming out of the other.

This may sound cynical but I suspect most heads of households feel this way as they try to balance their budgets with increasing expenses.  Will I be able to send my son to college? Can I pay that medical bill?  Will I meet my mortgage?  The frustration stemming from increasing difficulty to obtain the basics is like a stroke, sneaking up on Americans.  In a credit-driven economy, that heart attack may be on the horizon.

Forty-five economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics today have a less rosy outlook on the 2018 economy versus three months ago. Although expected growth in gross domestic product is still positive at 2.8%, the forecast is down from a previous forecast of 2.9%.  Current trade policies, according to economists surveyed, will have a drag on future growth with 82% of economists expecting a recession by 2019.

As I discussed in an earlier blog post, data from the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund are not holding out the sunniest expectations for the economy over the next two years.  Inflation is expected to peak at 2.8% in 2018 but fall to 2.4% and 2.0% in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The years 2021 and 2022 will see inflation at 1.9% climbing slightly to 2.0% in 2023.

Also constraining spending will be the rise in interest rates as the Federal Reserve exceeds its targeted 2% federal funds rate goal. America runs on credit and the more expensive is to purchase, the less of it Americans have to spend.  According to IMF data, the ten-year bond rate ended at 2.4% in 2017. The rate on a ten-year note sets the interest rates for lending in the United States. By the end of 2018, the rate on the ten year is expected to climb to 3.2%; in 2019, 3.7%; and in 2020, 3.8%.  The rate will then level off to 3.6% in 2021 and 2022; and hit 3.7% in 2023.

If the last decade is any indication of how well household incomes keep up with inflation, then many American households are in trouble. Average annual growth in household incomes for the lower (.70%); second (.64%); third (.29%), and fourth (.90%) quantile of household income are all growing at rates lower than expected inflation. The top quantile is seeing growth in annual income at a rate exceeding inflation (2.8%).

Many Americans would be upset with this scenario. Why can’t we get ahead? Why this gap in wealth and income? As I mentioned earlier, we are extraction points. We sit, along with natural resources, at the start point of a conveyor belt. At the other end of the conveyor belt is capital made up of coin and credit.  The conveyor belt is fueled or supported by a transportation, communications, and energy infrastructure. Riding on top of the belt are the components trade, government rules, markets, and money. They are to the conveyor belt as application programming interface is to a computer network; a go-between that enables work and income to be extracted from human resources and transported to the eventual owners of capital.

For example, human resources enter markets in order to sell labor or buy goods. Government rules determine the level of tax revenue that will be extracted from human resources.  The amount of money held by a human resource transmits information about that resources economic and financial value; her spending power.

Communications networks provide the conduits for transmitting information about a human resources value. Transportation networks move human resources to areas of employment where human resources convert natural and other resources into goods and services. Transportation networks also move the goods and services produced to end users. The facilities that create goods and services and the vehicles that transport goods and services run on various forms and sources of energy, including coal, nuclear, oil, electricity, solar, wind, and geothermal.

The top 20 percent occupy the capital side of the belt. Social justice warriors who argue the use of politics in order to close the gap between the top 20 percent and everyone else are making a losing argument. Politics is ineffective as a wealth and income gap closer because of the grasp that capital has on the conveyor belt. Central bankers and treasury ministers derive their influence and prestige from ensuring the conveyor belt (which we can also call a tax and payments system) operates at optimal to deliver returns (income) to the conveyor belt’s bond holders. Capital invests resources in lobbying, advocating, and the electoral process to ensure there are politicians in place that will make rules that do not impede the conveyor belt.

Those who are fed up with being extraction points want to stay off of the conveyor belt. We want to limit or eliminate our use of the communications, energy, and transportation networks that power the conveyor belt. Use of unlicensed spectrum to create our own networks; use of renewable energy sources in order to remain off grid; avoiding the purchase of vehicles in order to avoid the taxes and surveillance that are attached to them should be a goal.

I do not endorse living like a hermit (although I have no problem with prolonged peace and quiet), but we should pursue self-sustainability in order to minimize the consumerism that pulls us into unnecessary trade and market engagement.  We will free ourselves to accumulate more capital while starving the beast that created the imbalance in wealth and income in the first place.

Too bad the Democrats chose to politicize today’s EB-5 immigrant investor hearings

I am always reminded when watching a congressional hearing that the first duty of Congress is to keep the Executive in check. Today was no exception as I tuned into the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s hearing on the Employment Based Immigrant-Fifth Preference Program. The chairman of the committee, Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, called the meeting to discuss the problem of fraud in the program.

The EB-5 immigrant investor program promotes foreign direct investment in the United States by granting a green card (permanent residency) to an immigrant and his or her family where the immigrant invests $1 million or $500,000 in an investment that targets rural or underserved urban areas.

I was less interested in the fraud aspect, hoping that between any discussion of the downside of theft that the panel and its lone witness would shed some light on its benefits.

I should have known better….

A number of Democratic members of the panel, Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Senator Diane Feinstein, Democrat of California, decided to go off script and ask questions that had more to do with the issue of children being separated from parents detained at a Mexican-U.S. border non-port of entry versus how to tweak an investment program so that underserved communities in the United States get some economic attention.

It is no wonder that Congress gets blamed for not getting things done. One could argue that one thing these senators could have gotten done was ask why there were no immigrant investor regional centers in the United States Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. Given the high rates of poverty in both territories and the need for more economic development, attracting investment to underserved areas like U.S. Caribbean territories should have been among the committee’s priorities.  If they had any sense of awareness, one look at the calendar should have told them that it was that time of the year where Caribbean territories are preparing for another hurricane season.  Maybe one of those foreign immigrants they give so much credit to as innovators could be incentivized to invest a million or so dollars in the USVI or Puerto Rico in exchange for a visa….

… but that’s asking too much …

The political takeaway here is that criticism of any sitting president’s policy is the “doing something” that Congress is best at. You have to apply an entropy effect approach to understanding congressional politics. Taking time to conflate the EB-5 program with President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigrants trying to enter the U.S. without a visa should not be a surprise. It should be expected.

Is cryptocurrency beneficial to poor Blacks? No.

Yesterday the Bank of International Settlements issued an annual report with a 24-page chapter discussing cryptocurrencies. The report is critical of cryptocurrencies and the premise of decentralization. It argues that cryptocurrency lacks the stability in value and pricing brought about by a centralized payments system. While I am not surprised by the report’s bias toward centralization (BIS is after all the central bank of central banks), I appreciated the detail the report went into when describing decentralized ledger transactions and comparing that system to a centralized, central bank-based system.

The volatility of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin experience may be enough for most consumers to ignore cryptocurrency as a store of value or a medium of exchange.  As was a little perplexed last year when I saw a number of black Americans pushing cryptocurrency as the next big and best bet for achieving wealth. The sidewalk marketing was being done in an environment of unexplained rising Bitcoin value. I am not lying when I say I felt good about Bitcoin falling from highs of about $20,000 end of last year to around $7,000 today.  These people I saw riding buses through Brooklyn telling people to get onboard something so bloody technical that most never understood it needed a reality check, and the relative quiet I experience on social media from the silence was refreshing.

More importantly a pullback invites putting cryptocurrency and money in the proper perspective. First, analyzing new currency spawned by financial technology requires separating ourselves from the emotions.  In the American black community, the first cool dude with swag that can push the right emotional buttons on a people who are over-indexed on emotions will win the day, at least temporarily. Sheep, as Jim Cramer is fond of saying, get slaughtered.

Second, analyzing currency should come with the realization that we understand little about currency, money, markets, and economics. We conflate markets with consumerism and that is a mistake. Consumerist activity is low hanging fruit; easy to grasp because we are quick to meet our emotional needs with a gift bag. Meanwhile, those pushing Bitcoin on us didn’t have a clue as to the economic justifications for the increase. They asked us to view crypto the way we go out and buy houses and cars: come on down because the price is right. That kind of thinking, like the show, is corny.

Currency, whether digital or real, contains a message about an underlying economy. Cryptocurrency has no underlying economy. It cannot transmit messages about the value of an underlying economy because there is no underlying economy to begin with. The realities of an underlying economy keep a currency in check with market transactions providing consumers and producers with information as to how well the economy is doing and whether it is viable enough to project the “good faith” backing of a currency. Crypto does not have an underlying economy. While more vendors are using it, its use is nowhere near the use of real currencies.

For black people to push crypto on poor black people was abominable.

What the high price for a Bitcoin tells us is that if an underlying economy is developed, it will not be a world where the poor will be allowed to play. The price is transmitting a prediction about exclusivity. For example, urban cores like Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco are pricing the poor and middle class out of housing and other amenities. Why not develop a currency that reflects that new reality? Has it ever really been about inclusion or does the reality reflect exclusion?

As HR 5709 meanders through the U.S. House, FCC targets a pirate station serving Brooklyn’s Haitian community

On 13 June 2018, the Federal Communications Commission issued a notice of unlicensed operation to Reginald Simeon, an operator of a radio station in Brooklyn, New York. The Commission alleges that Mr. Simeon’s station, operating from a residential property on East 49th Street in Brooklyn, may be operating on the 88.5 Mhz frequency without a license.  The unlicensed operation is, according to the Commission, a violation of section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934.  The Commission also alleges that power emissions from Mr. Simeon’s station violated Part 15 of the Commission’s rules as to allowed field strength of signals at 250 micro-volts per meter for three meters.

While there is the legal and regulatory issue of whether or not Mr. Simeon’s station operated without a license and whether the signal strength was too strong, there is, too me, the more important issue of whether the Commission is about to deny the Haitian community another outlet for receiving news pertinent to the community’s members.

Section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934 requires any person that owns or operates an apparatus that transmits energy, communications, or signals by radio must have, subject to certain exceptions, a license to do so. Mr. Simeon has 30 days to answer the Commission’s complaint and make a showing as to whether he or not section 301 applies to his operations.

The Commission has made “pirate radio” (a derogatory term in my opinion) a priority lately. Arguments against pirate radio include interference with licensed broadcasts; interference with public safety broadcasts; and potential health effects from unregulated radiation. Besides, some critics of pirate radio may argue, if radio operators want to avoid getting a license without getting in trouble why not simply stream their broadcasts via the internet?

Part of the answer to the streaming question may lie in the preferences of the culture. As Justin Strout pointed out in a 2009 article on Prometheusradio.org when discussing pirate radio and Haitian communities:

“For different communities, radio stations are the best way to reach people,” offers Brandy Doyle, a regulatory policy associate for the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit advocacy group for low-power communications. The organization forms coalitions to push Congress to reform the rules and regulations that prohibit people from gaining access to the airwaves. “We find that even in the age of the Internet, people still want radio stations,” says Doyle. “In Florida, many of the unlicensed stations are operated by Haitian communities and other Caribbean communities that [have] immigrants who come from places where radio is really vital and important. They come to the U.S. and they can’t get a radio station license. They’re trying to reach the Haitian community in Miami, for example, where it’s really local. In many parts of the world, radio is much more central to daily life than it is in the U.S.”

Congress, however, seems keen on making operating a radio station without a license more expensive. HR 5709, the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act, provides the following:

“Any person who willfully and knowingly violates this Act or any rule, regulation, restriction, or condition made or imposed by the Commission under authority of this Act, or any rule, regulation, restriction, or condition made or imposed by any international radio or wire communications treaty or convention, or regulations annexed thereto, to which the United States is or may hereafter become party, relating to pirate radio broadcasting shall, in addition to any other penalties provided by law, be subject to a fine of not more than $100,000 for each day during which such offense occurs, in accordance with the limit described in subsection (a).” The limit described in subsection (a) is $2 million.

As a consumer, I do not care for internet radio. It is a costly tie-up of bandwidth. Also, during power outages, connecting to news and information is more difficult online versus via radio. All I need is a supply of batteries to keep my radio charged.

Policy wise, I do not see the Commission or the aforementioned Congress pursuing some type of middle ground policy that would keep small stations serving Caribbean communities alive. With Democrats and Republicans supporting the bill (it has been forwarded to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce), I see eventually passage by the full House and the U.S. Senate.

Bank of International Settlements warns against Bitcoin Hype

Hyun Song Shin, head of research for the Bank of International Settlements, provided some insights on the BIS’ discussion of Bitcoin found in BIS’ annual report released earlier today.  Mr. Hyun described the cryptocurrency as a poor medium of exchange, questioning the cryptocurrency’s low use.  Transactions are “slow and costly”, according to Mr. Hyun.  From the BIS website:

“Cryptocurrencies promise to replace trusted institutions with distributed ledger technology. Yet, looking beyond the hype, it is hard to identify a specific economic problem which they currently solve. Transactions are slow and costly, prone to congestion, and cannot scale with demand. The decentralised consensus behind the technology is also fragile and consumes vast amounts of energy. Still, distributed ledger technology could have promise in other applications. Policy responses need to prevent abuses while allowing further experimentation.”

In his brief description of the Bitcoin production process, Mr. Hyun warned that the ability of miners to choose which transactions to process may result in users paying a higher price to get their transactions onto the cryptocurrency’s distributed ledger.  The process is a congested one, but as production capacity lessens, so to does a miner’s incentive to extract Bitcoin.

Would independence make the U.S. Virgin Islands more Caribbean? Yes, I think so.

One evening after finishing a jog, I spied a young lady walking through the graduate residence I lived at during grad school. I walked up to her and introduced myself. Upon hearing her accent, I asked her where she was from. She told me Guyana. I responded enthusiastically and by saying that I was from the U.S. Virgin Islands. A sour look came across her face. She went on to tell me that I was American and not Caribbean.  I became indignant, wondering why she would draw that conclusion and told her that I was just as Caribbean as anyone from the region. She walked off with a look on her face as if she had stepped into a hornet’s nest.

I entered my apartment still pissed at what I perceived as an insult, but as I calmed down and started to process her observation, I saw, reluctantly, where she was coming from. Independence, it sounded like, was prerequisite for claims to being from the Caribbean region. Whether you came from an independent nation determined where you stood on the region’s totem pole.

For a number of reasons, I may have put this consideration out of my head. At the time of my encounter with the young Guyanese woman I had been on the U.S. mainland for roughly 15 years. I had become increasingly immersed in American, especially Black American, culture.  One of my saving graces had been the remnants of my accent. The other, closely related now I realize, was the company I kept while in Tallahassee. Most of my friends were either West Indian, descendants of West Indians, or preferred the company of West Indians. The few Black Americans I hung out with were some of the most open-minded people you could meet. Although I had received that type of treatment, albeit a lot less subtle, from the time I moved to the mainland, it had via that encounter become more pronounced.

Island nations had been going their own way since the early 1960s. The British Empire was in decolonization mode after the end of the second world war and the Caribbean was benefiting from it. Great Britain and Europe determined to take another route that would see them still exercise economic influence while dumping political responsibility on to their former colonies.  The United States got into the colonizer game pretty late in the Caribbean.

In 1898 the United States put the island of Puerto Rico into their portfolio. In August 1916, the U.S. entered an agreement to purchase the Danish West Indies from Denmark for a cool $25 million and renamed the territory the Virgin Islands of the United States. The purchase and eventual transfer in March 1917 were just in time for the territory to play a role in the protection of the Panama Canal via the establishment of a submarine base and other military facilities.

I will have to post on the legal uncertainty surrounding citizenship for the descendants of slaves in the territory but for now bear in mind that American citizenship became a crown for jewel for islanders and through the years, especially post World War II, the United States Virgin Islands (less of a mouthful nomenclature) would attract Caribbean people especially from the other islands in the Lesser Antilles.  Among those people would be my parents who met and married in St. Kitts and moved to St. Thomas in 1962.  I would enter this physical realm a year later, one foot in a Caribbean still under the direct rule of Great Britain, the other foot in a culture increasingly tainted in Americanism.

From childhood especially when traveling “home” to St Kitts, I was conscious of being in two different Caribbean realities. One night I am sitting in my great aunt’s house listening to the BBC. The next night I am in my living room in St. Thomas watching a one-week delayed television broadcast of “Mannix.”  Visiting cousins in New York, yes, I was from “the islands”, speaking with the funny accent, but I would have no qualms slipping into my best version of a Brooklyn accent just to fit in.  I was an American after all, wasn’t I?

And it is this attitude, that we are Americans versus Caribbean, that pervades the Virgin Islands’ culture.  The separateness from the rest of the Caribbean because of American citizenship is expressed with pride, so much pride that for the native-born Virgin Islanders, they look down on immigrants from St.  Kitts and other islands.  When I look back at my family’s network back in the USVI, it was primarily made up of people from St Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, and Antigua. Even today the Virgin Islanders I socialize with are either from St Kitts-Nevis or, as in my case, our parents were from St Kitts-Nevis. But whether you were born in St Thomas or an immigrant who became a naturalized citizen, your Americanism was viewed as a sign of superiority over the other island nations.

The irony, for it is for that reason that island nations look down on us and it is not coming from a place of jealousy.  I believe that they view a people who exercise little self-determination as second rate.  While I disagree with the description of my homies from the USVI as second-rate, I would agree that given our brain power and deep-water port, if we leveraged today’s technology to create our own economy, an independent Virgin Islands could be a force to reckon with in a Caribbean that needs to be led by a example of a dynamic fellow island nation. I would like to see that happen.

Caribbean media producers need paid prioritization

In his 2015 open internet order, former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler argued for a seamless internet that promotes a virtuous cycle of innovation.  This seamless internet ecosystem would include every point on the internet between the end user sitting at his laptop or on his smartphone and the website from whence the end user is attempting to download information. To ensure this seamless experience, Mr Wheeler invoked the four open internet principles of transparency; no paid prioritization; no throttling of a website’s traffic; and no blocking an end user’s attempt to access the website of her choosing.

As of 11 June 2018, Mr Wheeler’s rules are no more, repealed and replaced by the Restoring Internet Freedom order issued by the Commission in December 2017.  While the Restoring Internet Freedom order kept language from the open internet order that addressed transparency i.e. the public disclosure of accurate information regarding network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of service, etc., it repealed language addressing throttling of traffic from website, paid prioritization creating faster lanes for content providers, and blocking consumer access to legal websites.

The 2017 order addresses throttling, blocking, and paid prioritization concerns by providing language defining reasonable network practices. A network management practice is reasonable if it takes into account a legitimate business goal, the network’s architecture, and the technology of the broadband service. But critics of the Restoring Internet Freedom order are interpreting the repeal as authorizing ISPs to block or throttle internet traffic or allow large content providers to pay ISPS for the privilege of faster data lanes to their subscribers.

Critics can also be found in state legislatures where, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 65 pieces of legislation were offered in state legislatures that put the FCC’s 2015 rules on net neutrality into state law. Eight of these states (California, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have metropolitan areas where significant Caribbean populations are located.  None of these states have enacted net neutrality legislation yet. Net neutrality legislation has already failed to pass in three of these states: Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia.

I understand the idea of transparency because of the importance it plays in negotiating for broadband access services. I never understood, however, why so-called proponents of net neutrality rules were against voluntary strategic partnerships between ISPs and content providers.  For example, the Caribbean has an emerging entertainment industry, one that recognizes the benefits of digitization. In the 21st century artists have to leverage the internet to get to an audience that is viewing more video traffic via mobile. Getting in front of a sizeable Caribbean immigrant audience in the United States may mean leveraging paid prioritization in order to ensure the availability of bandwidth necessary to stream video and music.

The FCC’s decision to repeal paid prioritization may benefit entertainment producers from the Caribbean in the long run.  Attempts by the states to balkanize communications regulation should not be allowed.