The Financial Manhattan Project

February 6, 2015

It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.

-Robert Oppenheimer  

Recently, I was saddened to learn that my college physics professor died a few years back. I don't quite remember what led me down that path, but the walk down memory lane circled back to the realization of yet another dangerous and sad financial phenomenon evolving like a cancer on culture and society.  

I've been re-visiting fundamental physics, and with the internet these days, you can explore just about anything. 

My old professor recommended that I read the Richard Feynman lectures. Of course, nowadays you can simply watch them - almost as if you were there. 

As many of you know, Feynman became one of the most famous and visible physicists of the 20th century. Part of his charm, which remains today, is the Bronx accent that he never lost, as if some part of him never left the working class.

By most accounts, he was a genius. He was reading calculus books at age 13. He later won a Nobel Prize. He was recruited during World War II to work on the Manhattan Project. 

And he wasn't terribly conflicted about his participation. This is what he said about the experience years later (try and hear the Bronx accent):

"Now, with regard to our own things as human beings, naturally I myself, for example, worked on the bomb during the war. Now how do I feel about that? I have a philosophy that it doesn't do any good to go and make regrets about what you did before but to try to remember how you made the decision at the time.”  

…if the scientists in Germany could have developed this thing, then we would be helpless, and I think it would be the end of the civilization at that time. I don’t know how long the civilization is going to 

last anyway. So the main reason why I did work on it at the time was because I was afraid that the Germans would do it first, and I felt a responsibility to society to develop this thing to maintain our position in the war".

Obviously, by that point in his life he had plenty time to develop his rationalization; a plausible one, by any account. His post war achievements were evidently heavily influenced by his experience at Los Alamos. 

What would it be like for a young Feynman today - or the many like him? 

From what I've seen among my peers, it is probably very likely that Feynman would be recruited into finance. Obviously, not to participate in a war effort - though certainly many of the products of modern finance with their extreme leverage and opacity are indeed what Warren Buffet characterized as "financial weapons of mass destruction". 

Of course there are currency wars, which in the end are simply private conflicts fought between (quasi-governmental, but ultimately private) central banking cartels that simply use the government or law as a leverage point – with massive, practically all-encompassing collateral damage.

In many ways, this 'friendly fire' has us witnessing the destruction of the working class, including the scientists and engineers that could have been the Feynman's of tomorrow. There is the official labor force participation rate to prove this. 

Unfortunately, our best and brightest settle for the illusion of fast money and the high stakes of adrenaline fueled risk, with very little personal consequence - but mostly without any real contribution to the world around them. 

Many end up on the trading desks, managing blocks of electronic transactions via sophisticated and high speed computer operations – the so called algorithms fueled by high-frequency trading platforms run on a networks outside of the Wall Street exchanges.  Yet, in every sense, they have the bricks backing them, providing liquidity and running regulatory interference. 

Sure, maybe these young bright minds are free to choose. And I would not suggest taking away a choice. But the system, and the faith at the root of the churn - a Ponzi, fiat-driven, and leverage-based system that promises wealth and riches out of nothing is immoral' criminal and forced upon all of us via deception. 

The system destroys any hopes of a broad, organic, diverse economy of developing. 

The designers of algorithms recruited from the physics departments from the Ivy Leagues create, not proofs that might hold the key to unifying the principles and laws of nature, but expensive problems that go on plaguing humanity. 

Instead, they choose to game the system, living Las Vegas - above the law and ultimately destructive; fooling themselves that the bonuses, ruthless competition, and anti-social behavior holds the key to some ephemeral beauty of nature. 

Of course, nature has a funny (if not so gentle) way of righting wrongs in the end. 


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