Will the New York Times Profit Off an Elitist Profile?

very fat cat

It never ceases to amaze me how disconnected, or just plain unconcerned, the privileged can be when it comes to worrying about the future of the world. Believing they’re safe from the worst pains of anthropogenic climate change and contrived resource scarcity, their main concern tends to be how they are going to continue to grow their personal wealth when the shit hits the fan…

Long-term business analyst Jeremy Grantham has been noticed recently for what some see as economistic doomsday predictions, usually in the form of open “letters” to the investor class. In these communiques, Grantham says the same thing progressive economists and scientists have been saying for decades, citing roughly the same evidence (if far less of it!) and drawing essentially the same mid-term conclusions, with updated numbers. But Grantham has credibility because he’s not remotely radical, or really even progressive — he’s a late-to-the-game mainstream financial analyst… and more importantly, he’s got the interests of elites in mind, which means the New York Times will perk its ears up and give unconventional observations the kind of attention only a Magazine feature profile can provide.

Grantham and some fanboys drive the conversation of an August 11 NYTM piece titled “Can Jeremy Grantham Profit From Ecological Mayhem?” In a way only the extraordinarily privileged could swallow with a straight face, source after source lavishes Grantham with praise for looking out for the vulnerable, neglected investor class. Unless you’re made of money, it would be hard not to get outraged by the cavalier attitude of this whole story. But if you are a big investor, how “objective” and “unbiased” the feature must seem.

Let’s start with writer Carlo Rotella’s gushing treatment of Grantham:

Doomsayers are always plentiful, and the economic and environmental news has encouraged even more doomsaying than usual of late, but Grantham compels attention, in part because he’s not simply prophesying doom. […] And, crucially, the consequences will be unevenly distributed, creating angles for you to make money and look out for your interests, however you define them.

[emphasis added]

The New York Times is saying a man deserves attention not because he is pointing out how much trouble lies ahead (however inadequately); it’s because he inspires us to call our stockbrokers rather than run to the woods. In other words, it’s newsworthy because he can help people with capital exploit volatility, the rest of us be damned.

Bailout Nation author and prolific business blogger Barry Ritholtz, whose work I have followed for a couple of years now, appreciates Grantham as a fellow straight shooter. But with praise like the following in the NYTM story, it’s easy to see which side these guys are shooting for:

He’s not telling people to stockpile water and dehydrated food. He’s saying this asset class will underperform or not.

And what about those of us who can’t invest in assets of any class? (The ugly irony, of course, is that if a major collapse happens, it’s unlikely all the asset holdings in the world are going to keep these guys and their families fed and protected, but on the way to “doomsday” they can get filthier rich on paper!)

The whole piece is such a fawn fest, the Times even quotes sources with financial conflicts of interest. We’re treated to praise of Grantham from the head of the Environmental Defense Fund, a group backed by the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. We also hear from the executive director of that same Foundation, whose job no doubt depends on Grantham’s good graces. On what planet is that legitimate journalism?

The article includes no critics of Grantham or his attitude. In fact, the only bit that could be conceivably construed as criticism is mixed praise of the quarterly letters, coming from another employee of Grantham, who notes some investors complain that Grantham’s advice isn’t immediately applicable enough for them to exploit!

No source points out how bizarre it is that someone notes potential suffering only to dismiss or distract from it, making no real mention of current suffering. No one offers alternative analysis. No one even challenges Grantham’s numbers from any perspective, Left, Right, or Martian.

Enough views about Grantham. What about Grantham’s views? Let’s start with a zinger. In Rotella’s words from the Times piece:

The world’s population could reach 10 billion within half a century — perhaps twice as many human beings as the planet’s overtaxed resources can sustainably support, perhaps six times too many.

We aren’t told that this is only true if we assume the planetary elite — that tiny percentage of the global population that consumes a massive share of resources that could otherwise be used to feed, clothe, heal, shelter, and educate the 60 percent or so that live on less than $2 a day — is permitted to maintain its sickening dominance of global wealth and resources. This status quo is a given for the Times and people who look at Grantham as a prophet of profit angles.

Rotella quotes Grantham’s open letter from July:

We humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability. The problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth and profits, which is likely to cause suffering on a vast scale. With foresight and thoughtful planning, this suffering is completely avoidable.

The above statement is just plain wrong. First, it ignores the “suffering on a vast scale” that is already underway! On Day Zero, we’ve got suffering on a vast scale. Who can look around and consider that the horrors already caused by “scarcity” that is in turn caused by market capitalism’s wicked misallocation of goods and resources is anything other than “vast” — I’d rate it as “epic”, even.

Worse, it’s absurd to suggest by implication that the suffering of the world’s poorest can be averted. Some of it can be curbed — perhaps much, even — but the trajectory we are on offers no option for sparing a great many, no matter what radical changes are made. (See, for instance, the recent work of fellow market optimist Paul Gilding, who at least has the integrity to admit widespread suffering caused by climate change and scarcity will be hellish and is inevitable and underway.) And make no mistake, Grantham is not advocating radical changes anyway, least of all those with the most vulnerable in mind.

It isn’t actually clear what “suffering” Grantham is referring to. But even if he’s talking about the “suffering” of wealthy investor class that risks losing its $300 shirts if they don’t play their dollars right, that hardship can be but delayed as Grantham and his friends trample to the aft rim of the Titanic.

Grantham does give some indication of who he’s looking out for, noting that a drastic change in economic priorities will likely come “too late in the sense of failing to protect much of what we enjoy and value today.” By we, he probably doesn’t mean the world’s poorest.

Grantham wisely wants to tie the issue of climate change to that of resource depletion, which he thinks will have a greater impact on the American conscience than that abstract bogey man of global warming. “Global warming is bad news,” Grantham tells the Times. “Finite resources is investment advice.” Again we’re back to those real interests. You’re not going to ride out Grantham’s storm on your 401k.

Cynics like me will have to agree with Grantham to an extent: it’s true that Americans are more interested in their short-term concerns than looking down the road. But Grantham goes a step further; he considers this unfortunate attribute a strength, saying Americans “respond to a market signal better than almost anyone.” How great that we don’t care about those who will be first and most severely affected by climate change — by gosh, we’ll respond when it puts the economic pinch on us… after all, we’re Americans. Meanwhile, the Global South is collectively begging us to respond for their sake (and our own), but the virtuous Americans are awaiting the proper signal.

The Times feature ends unsurprisingly on a note of praise for Grantham.

But I’m not done with him yet.

Grantham’s most-recent letter — the one that has garnered him cult-like attention (that I contributed to because his numbers are very interesting) — is a moral disgrace.

Grantham is extremely smart and insightful. He has a keen eye for some of the limitations of the system he lives by.

Capitalism does not address these very long-term issues easily or well.  It seems to me that capitalism’s effectiveness moves along the spectrum of time horizons, brilliant at the short end but lost, irrelevant, and even plain dangerous at the very long end.

Again, how capitalism can be considered brilliant in the short term when billions of humans are food-insecure or at risk of dying from curable diseases is kind of hard for us non-elites to understand. But it’s important for business analysts to comprehend, as Grantham does, that capitalism isn’t even good at keeping their interests steadily shaping up, because markets have extremely limited predictive capabilities.

Grantham tentatively advocates reducing the human population of Earth in such a way that “might leave us with a world population of anywhere from 1.5 billion to 5 billion.” Well, we certainly could go a long way toward solving our resource problem by eliminating the wealthiest billion humans, but something tells me that isn’t who Grantham is thinking about. (I don’t advocate it either, for the record.)

We could more palatably solve many of our resource concerns by knocking out excess consumption by the wealthiest 15 percent of the global population, even while raising the standard of living for the lowest 60 percent or so. But of course that’s not a serious option for the Paper of Record or anyone they’d herald in a praise piece.

Grantham’s letter is devoid of the following words: hunger, poverty, refugee, famine, disease. These are hazards that even the most cynical of elite analysts doesn’t take seriously. Malnutrition and starvation are both mentioned, but one is a historical reference. One use of the terms is in a bullet point glancing over the fact that there will be “increases” in Africa and Asia, and nothing will be done about it. Another mention is used to crassly bolster Grantham’s case against US ethanol subsidies.

Grantham’s letter focuses heavily on agricultural issues, lending some very good analysis of soil and water problems that are worth reading. But it conspicuously ignores the root causes of the soil and water problems he notes: factory farming, livestock dependence, and monocropping. He’s either just learning about the cornucopia of deep-seeded oh-shit crises already facing humanity, or he’s burying most of them for whatever reason. Either way, his agricultural analysis is embarrassingly amateurish.

Perhaps worst of all, Grantham naively exhibits symptoms of a very typical chronic optimism disorder that is virtually religious in nature. This is not uncommon among elites trying earnestly to look down the road. After lamenting (while the Fukushima crisis is still at a high simmer in Japan) that humanity probably won’t make a revolutionary switch to nuclear fission energy, Grantham brightens up:

I believe that in 50 or so years – after many and severe economic and, possibly, social problems – we will emerge with sufficient, reasonably priced energy for everyone to live a decent life (if we assume other non-energy problems away for a moment) even if we don’t radically improve our behavior and make true sustainability our number one goal. In other words, current capitalist responses to higher prices should get the job done.

I’ll stick to the worst of this quotation’s many offenses: the belief, based on nothing but faith, that markets and humanity will somehow, magically, make everything peachy again mid-century. No need to switch economic systems or do anything too radical; after some undisclosed “social problems” that we can assume away, we don’t even need to “radically improve our behavior” in the meantime — everything will fix itself.

Substantiation of such a bizarre claim is unnecessary, because Grantham is telling the financial elite what they want to hear. Worst case scenario: everything will sort itself out after some problems. No worrying about that whole screwing-over-future-generations conundrum. Even the chief doomsayer says they’ll be fine.

That must be comforting for the kind of people the Times finds relevant.