Archive for January, 2008

Economic oversteering

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Yesterday, we saw the most extraordinary failure of economic leadership in recent years, when the US Federal Reserve pressed the “emergency morphine” button and cut Federal Reserve rates by 0.75%. It will not help.

These are extremely testing times, and thus far, the US Fed under Bernanke has been found wanting. Historians may well lay the real blame for current distress at the door of Alan Greenspan, who pioneered the use of morphine to dull economic pain, but they will probably also credit him with a certain level of discretion in its prescription. During Greenspan’s tenure at the Fed, economic leaders became convinced that the solution to market distress was to ensure that the financial system had access to easy money.

This proved effective in the short term. When LTCM looked set to explode (private investments, leveraged up dramatically, managed by Nobel prize-winning financial theorists, placed a bet on a sure thing which didn’t pan out quite as expected) Greenspan engineered an orderly unwinding of its affairs. When the dot com bubble burst, Greenspan kept the financial system energised by lowering rates so far that they were, for a substantial period, at negative levels.

A negative real interest rate means we are effectively paid to take out loans. That might sound good, but how would you feel if I used the words “paid to take a few more hits of crack cocaine”? The underlying problem was that people had become accustomed to high rates of return and did not want to accept that real rates of return in the US were moving down. They had become accustomed to easy money, and Greenspan’s policy ensured that money remained accessible at a time when people had demonstrated a low ability to invest that easy money well.

Low rates give people an incentive to invest in stocks, even if those stocks are not earning very much. This meant stock prices recovered quickly, and the effect was amplified by the fact that low rates increased corporate earnings. This was a so-called “soft landing” – disaster averted. He must have known the risks, but the one big warning sign that would likely have convinced Greenspan to return to normal rates was missing: inflation. Low rates, and especially negative rates, have historically always resulted in inflation. Greenspan kept rates low because there were no signs of inflation. It seemed as if the US had entered a new era where the correlation of rates and inflation no long held true. People explained it by saying that the US was increasing its productivity dramatically (productivity increases are like anti-inflation medicine). Now, with hindsight, it appears that the real reason for the absence of inflation was that the Chinese were increasing their productivity dramatically, and that US consumers were spending so much on Chinese goods that Chinese productivity growth, not US productivity growth, was keeping US prices low.

When tech came off the boil and people should have been using the pause to clean up their affairs, Greenspan made it easy for people to get themselves into a worse position. Easy money made stock market prices artificially high, so stock market investors felt rich. Worse, easy money made house prices artificially high (by about 45%), so everybody felt wealthier than they had planned or expected to.

To make matters worse, a series of financial innovations created a whole industry designed to help people go back into debt on their houses. I remember trying to watch TV in the US and being amazed at the number of advertisements for “home equity withdrawals”. They made it sound like turning your major personal financial asset – your paid-off house – into an ATM machine was a good thing. In fact, it was a means to spend all of your primary store of wealth. And with inflated house prices, it was a way to spend money that you did not really have. A convenient way to get into a deep, dark hole of family debt. The result? The average American owns less of her home today than  she did 30 years ago – 55% as opposed to 68%. Easy money makes people poorer.The company with the most irritating ads, Ditech (and I feel ashamed to be contributing to their website search ranking with the mention, perhaps it will help instead to link to their customer feedback), has a tagline “People are smart” and a business model built on the idea that “People are dumb”. Their “most popular” product strikes me as being tailor-made to make it easy to turn home equity – an asset – into new debt.

Why did Greenspan do it? I think he genuinely believed that there was something different about the modern world that had altered the laws of economic gravity. I suspect he no longer feels that way.

But Greenspan is no longer Chairman of the Fed. Ben Bernanke blinked, yesterday, and in that blink we have the measure of the man.

Greenspan acted carefully, logically, and basically prudently. Several years of anomalous economic data are a reasonable basis to think that the rules have evolved. You would have to have a Swiss (700 years of stability) or Chinese (“we think it’s too early to tell if the French Revolution was a good idea”) approach to stick with economic theories that are at odds with the facts for very long. Greenspan made a mistake, and it will have huge consequences for the US for a generation, but he had reasons for that mistake. Bernanke just blinked, he panicked, despite knowing better.

We now have rigorous economic explanations for all that is happening. We have come to understand, quite clearly, what is going on in the world. The deflationary Eastern wind has been identified. We know there is no productivity miracle in the US, no change in the laws of physics or economics. So we know that the US patient is addicted to easy money morphine, medicine that was prescribed with good intentions by Dr Greenspan, medicine that has in the last 7 years made the patient more ill and not less. More morphine today constitutes malpractice, not economic innovation. We know the consequences of more morphine – stock prices will rise artificially (4% yesterday, on the news of the shot), house prices will stumble along, companies will take longer to default on their loans.

Bernanke might be hoping to do what Greenspan did – retire before the addiction becomes entirely obvious. Too late. While the Fed is clearly not willing to admit it, the markets have just as clearly taken their own view, that the prognosis is not good. They are smart enough to see that all Bernanke has done is cover up the symptoms of malaise, and many are using the temporary pain relief to head for safer territory. I expect that any relief will be brief, market recoveries will  fade, the rout has been deferred but not averted.

I started out by describing the Fed’s actions as a failure of economic leadership. Some folks are lucky enough to lead from the bottom of the cycle, up – they take over when things are miserable and can only really get better. They look like heroes even if their voodoo has no mojo, so to speak. Others are less lucky, they get handed custodianship of an asset that is at the peak. As for Bernanke, he’s in that latter category. He needs to be able to speak clearly and frankly about the hard work that lies ahead in the US. He needs to appeal to the very best of American industriousness – a traditional willingness to work hard, be smart, and accept the consequences of refusing to do so. He needs to lead under the most difficult circumstances. But that’s what leadership is about.

Fortunately for Bernanke, central bank independence is widely believed to be the only credible approach to economic governance. That independence gives Bernanke the right to stand at odds with political leaders if needed. Given the recent White House announcements – more morphine, further indebtedness for the worlds most indebted country – there’s no stomache for a real program of rehabilitation in the Bush Administration. Bernanke will have to lead without political support, a very difficult task indeed. Our greatest and most memorable leaders are those who lead through difficult times. The same is true of failures of leadership. Appeasement, or rehabilitation. Chamberlain, or Churchill. Thus far, Chamberlain.

Ubuntu Live – Call for Papers

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

Ubuntu Live 2008 Call for ProposalsO’Reilly, the organisers of Ubuntu Live, have just issued the call for papers for Ubuntu Live 2008. The theme of the event is “Taking it Further”, which I think is perfect for Ubuntu this year!

The subtitle to the conference should probably be “Going into production at scale”, because it seems everywhere I look these days people are taking Ubuntu into production. Perhaps it’s the preparation for the April LTS release, perhaps its that more and more of their apps and solutions are certified on Ubuntu, or perhaps its just that confidence in Ubuntu for large-scale deployments on the server and the desktop has reached a tipping point, but either way I’m delighted with the ramping up of heavy-duty adoption of the platform that our community delivers with such metronomic precision.

So Ubuntu Live 2008 promises to be informative, as we start to reap the benefits of that experience. If you have interesting deployments or projects that you would like to share, UL2008 would be the right platform to do it! I’d be particularly interested in talks that describe:

  • large-scale government deployments of Ubuntu on the desktop (there have now been several)
  • specialist deployments, for example high-performance computing clusters, or vertical market solutions
  • virtualisation-based deployments where Ubuntu is the host or the guest platform
  • large-scale server farms for hosting or web edge-of-the-network deployments
  • appliances based on Ubuntu

You can submit a proposal directly or read more about the conference. Hope to see you there!

Good architectural layering, and Bzr 1.1

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

I completely failed to blog the release of Bzr 1.0 last year, but it was an excellent milestone and by all accounts, very well received. Congratulations to the Bazaar community on their momentum! I believe that the freeze for 1.1 is in place now so it’s great to see that they are going to continue to deliver regular releases.

I’ve observed a surge in the number of contributors to Bazaar recently, which has resulted in a lot of small but useful branches with bugfixes for various corner cases, operating systems and integrations with other tools. One of the most interesting projects that’s getting more attention is BzrEclipse, integrating Bzr into the Eclipse IDE in a natural fashion.

I think open source projects go through an initial phase where they work best with a tight group of core contributors who get the basics laid out to the point where the tool or application is usable by a wider audience. Then, they need to make the transition from being “closely held” to being open to drive-by contributions from folks who just want to fix a small bug or add a small feature. That’s quite a difficult transition, because the social skills required to run the project are quite different in those two modes. It’s not only about having good social skills, but also about having good processes that support the flow of new, small contributions from new, unproven contributors into the code-base.

It seems that one of the key “best practices” that has emerged is the idea of plug-in architectures, that allow new developers to contribute an extension, plug-in or add-on to the codebase without having to learn too much about the guts of the project, or participate in too many heavyweight processes. I would generalize that and say that good design, with clearly though-through and pragmatic layers, allow new contributors to make useful contributions to the code-base quickly because they present useful abstractions early on.

Firefox really benefited from their decision to support cross-platform add-ons. I’m delighted to hear that OpenOffice is headed in the same direction.

Bazaar is very nicely architected. Not only is there a well-defined plug-in system, but there’s also a very useful and pragmatic layered architecture which keeps the various bits of complexity contained for those who really need to know. I’ve observed how different teams of contributors, or individuals, have introduced whole new on-disk formats with new performance characteristics, completely orthogonally to the rest of the code. So if you are interested in the performance of status and diff, you can delve into working tree state code without having to worry about long-term revision storage or branch history mappings.

Layering can also cause problems, when the layers are designed too early and don’t reflect the pragmatic reality of the code. For example, witness the “exchange of views” between the ZFS folks and the Linux filesystem community, who have very different opinions on the importance and benefits of layering.

Anyhow, kudos to the Bazaar guys for the imminent 1.1, and for adopting an architecture that makes it easier for contributors to get going.

I’m absolutely thrilled to see this chart of untriaged bugs in Inkscape since the project moved to Launchpad:

Untriaged Inkscape bugs after move to LP

As you can see, the Inkscape community has been busy triaging and closing bugs, radically reducing the “new and unknown” bug count and giving the developers a tighter, more focused idea of where the important issues are that need to be addressed.

A lot of my personal interest in free software is motivated by the idea that we can be more efficient if we collaborate better. If we want free software to be the norm for personal computing software, then we have to show, among other things, that the open, free software approach taps into the global talent pool in a healthier, more dynamic way than the old proprietary approach to building software does. We don’t have money on our side, but we do have the power of collaboration.

I put a lot of personal effort into Launchpad because I love the idea that it can help lead the way to better collaboration across the whole ecosystem of free software development. I look for the practices which the best-run projects follow, and encourage the Launchpad guys to make it easy for everyone to do those things. These improvements and efficiencies will help each project individually, but it also helps every Linux distribution as well. This sort of picture gives me a sense of real accomplishment in that regard.

Bryce Harrington, who happens to work for Canonical and is a member of the Inkscape team, told me about this and blogged the experience. I’ve asked a few other Inkscape folks, and they seem genuinely thrilled at the result. I’m delighted. Thank you!