Something like a week remains before General Motors is reduced to lunch meat on industrial-capital's All-You-Can-Eat buffet spread. The wish is that its deconstructed pieces will re-organize into a "lean, mean machine" for producing "cars that Americans want to buy," and that, by extension, the American Dream of a Happy Motoring economy may be extended a while longer.
This fantasy rests on some assumptions that just don't "pencil out." One is that the broad American car-owning public can continue to buy their cars the usual way, on credit. The biggest emerging new class in America is the "former middle class." Credit kept the remnants of the middle class going for decades after their incomes stopped growing in the 1970s. Now, their incomes have stopped coming in altogether and they are sinking into swamp of entropy already occupied by the tattoo-for-lunch-bunch. Of course, this has plenty of dire sociopolitical implications.
Unfortunately, the big American banks did their biggest volume business in their biggest loans at the very time that that the middle class was on its way to becoming former. Now that the former middle class is arriving at its destination, the banks are so damaged by bad paper that they won't make loans to even the remnant of the remnant of the middle class. In other words, the entire model for financing Happy Motoring is now out-of-order, probably permanently.
Even assuming some Americans can continue buying cars one way or another, I'm not convinced that we can make the kinds we fantasize about. Notice, nobody talks about hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars anymore. Why not? Because the technicalities and logistics could not be overcome at the scale required -- i.e. at the current scale of mass highway motoring and commuting. Sure, you could build a demonstration vehicle and run it around a test track a few times, but could you build a mass production car by the tens of millions that would run for 150,000 miles without a hugely expensive fuel cell change-out? No, at least not within the time-window that the liquid hydrocarbon fuel problem presented. Or could you construct a hydrogen fuel station (and product delivery) network replacing the old gasoline stations? Fuggeddabowdit. Hydrogen, as an element, was just too hard to move and contain. It's teeny-weeny atoms leaked out of valves and gaskets remorselessly and you couldn't pack enough into a tanker truck to make the trip to its destination worthwhile. Schemes to generate hydrogen on-board all ended up in the "perpetual motion" sink.
The current wish is that the dregs of GM and Chrysler will hire low-paid elves with no pension or health benefits and pump out hybrid and/or electric cars. It's conceivable that we could "reverse-engineer" a Prius or an Insight, but considering what a lousy job American car companies did on reverse-engineering everything that Japan or Germany pumped out over the past thirty-five years, the odds are pretty high that these new products will be just lame enough to fail against the established competition. What's more, they also present logistical and technical problems. For the hybrid, gasoline is still an issue (and Jevon's Paradox comes into play: the more efficient you make a means for using a resource, the more of that resource you will use). For both the hybrid and the electric car, the issue of how to get enough lithium for the batteries obtains, at least for now, given the current state-of-the-art battery technology. Most of this rare metal now comes from one place, Bolivia, and everybody wants "a piece" of it. Electric vehicles in large numbers depend on either coal or nuclear powered electric generation, each presenting special hazards. Both hybrids and electric cars would depend on the old installment loan purchase system -- at least to work in the current mode of suburban living, long-range commuting, and interstate highway travel.
Boone Pickens's plan of last year for converting the US car fleet to natural gas was another fantasy with wide appeal. But it depended on the companion fantasy of building massive wind-farm infrastructure on the great plains to shift natural gas use from power plants to vehicles, and the financial crisis has destroyed the capital necessary to even begin planning that project -- it even destroyed a large part of Mr. Pickens own capital reserves. Anyway, I would not be so sanguine about the long-term future of the shale gas plays that this scheme was based on. The depletion rates of these wells is horrendous and the amount of steel needed to keep production up is not consistent with the realities of the available infrastructure.
All the technologies under consideration are not likely to extend the Happy Motoring era. A prayerful reflection on them can only reinforce the specialness of oil and its byproducts -- cheap oil double-specially -- as well as reinforcing the reality that the cheap energy era itself is over. And, of course, in the play of events over the past several years we can see the relationship between cheap energy and easy credit, and how our entire economy has run aground, one way or another, on resource limits.
The implications of all this in the sociopolitical and geopolitical realms are pretty daunting. As long as we maintain Happy Motoring as the normal mode of existence in this country, we are going to see an ever-growing class of very resentful citizens pissed off at being foreclosed from it. In my oft-repeated scheme-of-things, this leads very quickly to the trap of political extremism, perhaps even corn-pone Naziism, as the system becomes increasingly difficult to prop up except by force. In geopolitical terms it leads to ever more dangerous international contests over the world's remaining oil reserves.
All this leads to two conclusions.
One is to accept the fact that the Happy Motoring era is over and to devote our remaining resources to re-localization, walkable communities, and public transit. It obviously requires a very drastic revision of our current collective self-image, of what we aspire to and who we are. If the car companies have any future at all, it should be based on making the rolling stock for public transit -- and for now the most intelligent choice for us is to fix the existing passenger railroad lines instead of venturing into grandiose new transit systems requiring stupendous capital outlays. Let the car era wind down gracefully. Triage and prioritize the highway maintenance agenda -- we won't be affluent enough to keep repaving the whole existing system -- and let other nations meet the diminishing demand for cars in the USA. This would be a "best case" scenario. (Other nations may decide to go further up the Happy Motoring road at their own eventual peril.)
My second conclusion is not so appetizing, namely that the bankruptcy of General Motors may set in motion a chain of events that will accelerate the destructive unwind of the bad credit economy, the damage to our bond values, the loss of faith in our currency, and the authority and legitimacy of our leaders. This last dire outcome might be allayed if, say, President Obama directed his policy efforts to the items in the paragraph above, that is, a reality-based agenda for true change in how we live -- but who can feel confident about that happening these days? Maybe it will take a horrifying chain of events to get Mr. Obama there. And then, tragically, he may be overwhelmed by the chain of events itself. I hope not.
The wishes of the "green shoots and mustard seed" crowd really hinge on whether the various organs of the suburban economy can be jump-started back to life -- the production home-builders, the granite countertop outfitters, the mall and strip-mall gang, the national chain discount retailers, all the people who make Happy Motoring possible from the factory to the showroom, and, of course, the banks who shovel money into these enterprises.
All these organs of our now-former economy are gravely impaired, and a realistic appraisal of them would have to conclude that they've entered the zone of congestive failure. The choice we face really comes down to this: do we put our dwindling resources and "hopes" into resuscitating those dying systems, or do we move forward to the next chapter of American life, cut our losses, and make new arrangements more consistent with the realities on offer from the universe? To take it a step further, can we remain one nation, a common culture, without such a conscious re-purposing of our collective spirit?
The bizarre spectacle being played out right now by President Obama and his team only adds layers of mystery and mystification to this big question. On the one hand, you have Mr. Obama giving a graceful, thoughtful speech on a very difficult issue (abortion) at a very tough venue (the country's leading Catholic university), and presenting an excellent case for common ground. It was a bold deed, unshirking, even brave considering what have come to be the standard modes of pander or evasion in presidential politics. I suspect that Mr. Obama did it as much to demonstrate his willingness to face tough questions in general as to address abortion per se.
All this is to say why it is so dispiriting to see Mr. Obama's White House mount a campaign to sustain the unsustainable in the economic realm. Everything they've done for four months involving money management and enterprise policy -- from backstopping hopeless banks, to gaming the bankruptcies of the big car companies, to the bungled efforts to prop up artificially-high house prices -- amounts to a gigantic exercise in futility. Worse, it gives off odors of dishonesty or stupidity, since the ominous tendings of our system are so starkly self-evident.
Not least of the problems entailed in all this are the scary political consequences. It's one thing for a business such as a bank to fail; its another thing for the public to lose confidence in banking, or their own currency, or the credibility of all the people who work in banking, or the authority of those charged to regulate these activities, or the courts and their officers who are supposed to adjudicate misconduct in them. When faith in all these things starts to go, all bets are off for even larger social constructs like democracy, justice, and the destiny of a federal republic.
The Obama White House has very quickly painted itself into a corner on these things. The so-called bank "stress test" couldn't have backfired more completely. Rather than bolster confidence in our money system and the people who run it, it only made the system appear more obviously corrupt. It made the Treasury Department (and the White House by extension) look idiotic for concocting it. Worse, the game of allowing the banks to audit themselves, and cook their books under newly jiggered accounting rules, only made them look less sound and trustworthy, and their executives more venal and mendacious. The stress test scam also virtually guaranteed that the banks will not get another dime out of congress -- even while it is common knowledge that they will desperately need quadrillions more dimes in the months ahead.
Who knows what the point of this ludicrous exercise was? Observers in all corners of the media saw through it, and the public has only been made more cynical, and is now so furious over related stunts like AIG using taxpayer money to pay back swaps bets to Goldman Sachs that there is a whiff of revolution in the American air for the first time, really, since 1861. A lot of reasonable people see a good chance that our society will sink into disorder if these trends continue, and these fears could beat a path into radical politics, even the frightful prospect of coup d'etat -- not something that I advocate, by the way.
The president is playing with fire on all this. The old economy is not going to recover, and so far he has not used his rhetorical talents to articulate what the next economy is likely to be about. It is reasonable to wonder whether he even really has a clear sense of it -- and, based on the fatuous utterances of his economic mandarins like Larry Summers and Austan Goolsby, this team is really behind the curve.
There are plenty of things you can state about the economy past and future with some confidence right now:
-- Cheap energy is over and our wishes for alt.energy are currently inconsistent with reality, meaning we have to live differently.
-- We have to downscale and re-localize our major economic activities: food production, commerce and manufacturing, banking, schooling, etc.
-- We can't hope to have a stable money system unless we allow a workout of unpayable debt to proceed.
-- Even if we can do this, universal easy credit is a thing of the past. From now on, we have to save for the things we want and run our businesses and households on accounts receivable.
-- Major demographic shifts are inevitable as it becomes necessary to let go of suburbia and reactivate our derelict towns and smaller cities (and allow our giant metroplexes to contract).
-- We have to face the truth that our major social contracts cannot be met, namely the continuation of social security as we know it and probably all pension arrangements. We'll probably have to change household arrangements to make up for these losses.
-- Health care will have to go through a revolution more comprehensive than just changing how we pay for it. Like everything else, it will have to downscale, re-localize, and become more rigorous.
We're not going to rescue the banks. The collateral for their loans is no good and it will only lose more value. All those tract houses on the cul-de-sacs of America and scattered on the out-parcels of our tragically subdivided farming landscape will only lose value, one way or another, in the years ahead. Right now they're simply losing inflated cash value -- and that has been bad enough to sink the banks. In the months and years ahead, they'll lose their sheer usefulness as the distances once mitigated by cheap gasoline loom larger again, and the jobs vanish and incomes with them, and the supermarket shelves cease to groan with eighty-seven different varieties of flavored coffee creamers, and one-by-one the national chain stores shutter, and the theme parks, and the Nascar ovals, and the malls, and the colossal superfluous cretin-cargo of consumer nonsense that we've been daydreaming in gets blown away in a hurricane of change that we were not ready to believe in.
Back in the golden age of American Flyfishing -- say around 1913 -- when technical innovation in a prissy and recondite sport was joined by a new leisure class emanating from the white glove canyons of Wall Street, some new-minted guru of angling came up with method for whipping up action on a trout stream when no fish would rise to the fly. It was really lame. The idea was to artificially create the illusion of a mayfly hatch -- that moment when the larva of, for instance, Ephemerella subvaria, the Hendrickson mayfly, swims to the surface, molts, and dries its newly unfurled adult wings in the brisk spring air. This is famously the moment that drives trout crazy, and when it occurs en masse, with zillions of mayflies "hatching" off the water, a trout feeding-frenzy can ensue. The idea with the artificial hatch was to pitch a fake Hendrickson fly made of feathers and fur in so many furious, rapid casts that the dumb trout lurking below would get suckered into a feeding frenzy -- and, shortly, into the buttered frying pan, with a nice "tuxedo" of cornmeal and bacon.
In the annals of flyfishing, this gambit has been all but discredited, except among the mentally sub-normal who sometimes venture over from the lumpen realm of crank-and-plug fishing in search of improved social standing. But the tactic naturally transferred into the precincts of finance, where it reappeared in such disparate practices as Ponzi schemes and Keynesian "pump-priming." Now it is being employed at a scale never seen before, on an economy that is the equivalent of a great dead river poisoned by the toxic effluents of the same society that inhabits its banks (no pun intended). The dark secret of this river is that the fish who once ran there are all dead.
Much has been made in recent weeks of "animal spirits" and the "psychology of markets" in the hopes that mere attitudes might overcome the laws of thermodynamics. Math wizardry has now yielded to self-esteem building, an understandable sequence of events, since trafficking in the mutant spawn of Wall Street algorithms has ended up completely demoralizing the United States of America. Sadly, this is a little like subjecting a man who has just watched his house burn down to twelve segments of Oprah shows about the triumphal secrets of weight loss.
The Great Wish across America is to resume the life of comfort-and-convenience that seemed so nirvana-like just a few short years ago, when the very constellations of the heavens might have been renamed after heroic Atlanta realtors and Connecticut hedge fund warriors, and the boomer portfolios groaned with earnings, and millions of graying corporate salary mules dreamed of their approaching retirement to a satori of golf and Viagra, and the interior decorators grew so rich installing granite countertops that they could buy their own houses in the East Hampton, and every microcephalic parking valet in Las Vegas qualified for a bucket full of Ninja mortgages, and Lloyd Blankfein could dream of divorcing his wife to marry his cappuccino machine.
The choices now are stark and the kind of life on offer by the future is rather austere. The job of the current president, and the people who work with him, is to manage an epic contraction -- let's say, to land a very large, loaded defect-ridden airplane that has both run out of fuel and suffered grievous mechanical breakdown... and to bring down that vehicle in an unfamiliar country filled with angry savages. Sadly, the new president and his co-pilots just want to keep the plane up there, circling. The president's viziers are working round-the-clock to come up with some way, some toggle-switch, that might turn off the laws of gravity (which are not unrelated to the laws of thermodynamics). But all they seem to be able to come up with are mumbled prayers that are pale imitations of the algorithms once concocted by the Wall Street engineers who designed the aircraft they're riding in.
Well, that's enough conceits and metaphors for today.
We've digested the so-called "stress tests" for now with nary a burp and in a few weeks General Motors will step into the dark cave of bankruptcy. All the ancillary businesses linked to the US car-makers face contraction and annihilation. A couple of things occur to me which have not even entered the national debate on these matters: 1.) the US will still need to manufacture engines and chassis for military vehicles. Do we intend to send out to Mitsubishi for those things in the years ahead? 2.) the US will need rolling stock (i.e. choo-choo cars and engines) for a revived passenger railroad system. Do we intend to buy all that from the quaint peoples of other lands? (While the US workforce instead focuses on updated releases of Grand Theft Auto.)
At the moment, there is tremendous hoopla and jubilation over the start-up of so many "shovel-ready" highway projects around America -- as if what we need most are additional circumferential freeways to enhance the Happy Motoring lifestyle. How insane are we? Is this the only thing we know how to do?
I remain confident that the months ahead will introduce the American public and our leaders to a range of horrors that will begin to penetrate our addled collective imagination. We're far from done with the crisis of banking and money and the related fiasco in mortgages -- which translates into the very real situation of many people become homeless. It remains to be seen what may happen on the food production scene, but the current severe shortage of capital and the intense droughts shaping up around the world will resolve into a much clearer picture by mid-summer. The price of oil has resumed marching up and has now re-entered a range ($50-plus) that spun the airline industry into bankruptcy last time around. Enough carnage has already occurred on the jobs scene that the next act among many chronically jobless may tilt toward desperation, anger, and violence. The sporting goods shops around the nation are already rationing ammunition.
It's not just the stock markets that have decoupled from reality as we enjoy the fragrant vapors of spring -- it's the entire conscious consensus of everybody holding the levers of power and opinion. To put it as simply as possible, we're still sleepwalking into the future.
Euphoria managed to out-run swine flu last week as the epidemic-du-jour, with "consumer" confidence jumping and the big bank stocks nudging up. The H1N1 virus fizzled for now, at least in terms of kill ratio, though we're warned it might boomerang in the fall with a vengeance. No one was surprised to see Chrysler roll over like a possum on a county highway, but the memory of their muscle cars will linger on like a California surfing song. Here in the northeast, where Sundays are not spent at the Nascar oval, the spring foliage reached the tenderly explosive stage and it was hard to feel bad about anything.
For now, the "bottom" is in -- that is, the bottom of this society's ability to process reality. It may continue for a month of so, even after the "stress test" for banks is finally let out of the massage parlor with a "happy ending." But events are underway that are beyond the command of personalities. We're done "doing business" in all the ways that we've been used to, but we just can't get with the new program. Let's count the ways:
1. The revolving credit economy is over. It's over because we can't increase energy inputs to the system, which is one way of saying "peak oil." Of course hardly anybody believes this right now because the price of oil crashed nine months ago, along with global manufacturing and trade. But nothing has changed on the peak oil scene -- except perhaps that ever more new oil projects have been cancelled for lack of financing, which will boomerang on us (even if swine flu doesn't) in the form of much lower future oil production. In any case, the credit fiesta is over, and the "consumer" economy with it, because industrial growth as we have known it is over. It's over globally, too, though all regions of the world will not experience its demise the same way at the same rate.
The Asian nations may swap things around a while longer but China is basically screwed. They have less oil left than we have (which is saying, not much at all) and they won't corner the rest of the global oil market without starting World War Three. Meanwhile, they're running out of water and food. Good luck becoming the next global hegemon. Oh, and Japan imports 90 percent of its energy; India over 80 percent. Fuggeddabowdit.
Credit will not vanish everywhere overnight -- even in the USA -- because it is not distributed equally everywhere. But it will vanish in layers, and here in the USA a very broad layer of the lower and middle classes are now losing their access to it in one way or another -- personally, in small business -- and they will never get it back. Anyone who intends to thrive in the years just ahead had better plan on doing it on the basis of accounts receivable -- and what they receive might not even necessarily come in the form of US dollars. It may come in the form of gold or silver or in the promise of reciprocal services rendered.
This has enormous implications for two of the items in which our credit-dispensing operations are most deeply vested: houses and cars. Unfortunately, these are exactly the things that economic life has been based on for decades in our nation, which leads to the next categories:
2.) The suburban living arrangement is over, along with all its accessories and furnishings. Taken as "all of a piece," the suburban expansion was one sixty-year-long orgasm of hypertrophy. We did it because we could. We won a world war and threw a party. We had lots of cheap land and cheap oil. It made lots of people lots of money and all its usufructs have become embedded in our national identity to the dangerous degree that the loss of them will provoke a kind of national psychotic breakdown. In fact, it already has. The completely unrealistic expectation that we can resume this way of life is proof of it.
The immediate problem is that we can't build anymore of it. The next problem will be the failure of the stuff that already exists. The first stage of that is now palpable in the mortgage foreclosure fiasco and, just beginning now, the tanking of malls, strip centers, office parks and other commercial property investments. The latter will accelerate and become visible very quickly as retail tenants bug out and weeds start growing where the Chryslers and Pontiacs once parked. The next stage, which involves large demographic shifts in how we inhabit the landscape, has not quite gotten underway.
3.) The Happy Motoring fiesta is over. You'd think that with Chrysler crawling into the bankruptcy court, and GM just weeks away from the same terminal ceremony, the news media would begin to suspect that the foundation of everyday life in this country was cracking. Instead, all we hear is blather about "market share" shifting to Toyota. News flash: not only will we make fewer automobiles in the USA, but Americans will buy far fewer cars made anywhere. We'll keep the current fleet moving a while longer, but when it's too beat to repair, we won't be changing it out for a new fleet -- despite all the fantasies about hybrids, plug-and-drive electrics, and so on. The masses will be too broke to buy these things. What's more, they will be very resentful of the shrinking economic "elite" who can afford them. And, anyway, our roads and highways are destined to fall apart very quickly because there is no way we can sustain the necessary rate of normal maintenance. Meanwhile, we remain completely un-serious about public transit -- even about fixing the vestiges that still exist. The airline industry, of course, will be toast inside of five years.
4.) Our food production system is approaching crisis. There's no way we can continue the petro-agriculture system of farming and the Cheez Doodle and Pepsi Cola diet that it services. The public is absolutely zombified in the face of this problem -- perhaps a result of the diet itself. President Obama and Ag Secretary Vilsack have not given a hint that they understand the gravity of the situation. It is probably one of those unfortunate events of history that can only impress a society in the form of a crisis. It also happens to be one of the few problems we face that public policy could affect sharply and broadly -- if we underwrote the reactivation of smaller, local farm operations instead of shoveling money to giant "agribusiness" (or Citibank, or Goldman Sachs, or AIG...). I maintain that this may be the year that the crisis gets our attention, because capital is suddenly harder to get than fossil-fuel-based fertilizer.
All these epochal discontinuities present themselves, for the moment, as a season of muted "hope" and general apathy. The days are suddenly mild. We've resumed old and happy habits of grilling meat outdoors and motoring to those remaining places that were not blanketed with franchised food huts and discount malls. We have a new, charming president with an appealing family. Newly-minted dollars are flowing to the "shovel-ready." The new bad news is less bad than the old bad news (or seems to be). And the year just past has been such a bummer that our hard-wired human nature tells us that good things must be just around the corner.
Personally, I think a lot of good things await us, but not the ones we're expecting -- not a return to buying slurpees on credit cards. It will be very salutary to leave behind the junk empire we've accumulated and move into an epoch of quality and purpose. For the moment, though, our hopes reside elsewhere.
Things come out of the woodwork. All of a sudden it's a mutant H1N1 swine flu, with bird and human DNA accessories. We don't know where this is taking us. It could be a media blowover, like SARS, or it could be a big deal, shutting down travel and assemblies of humans. It would be a very big deal if it killed, proportionately, as much of the population as the 1918 flu event -- the worldwide toll then was roughly 30 -100-million out of a global population around 1.7 billion. Now the world population is over 6.5 billion. The only thing anyone can predict at the moment is that there will be a lot of very worried health officials and politicians out there in the days ahead.
This flu epidemic comes just as global economy itself lies comatose in the economic intensive care unit, with IV lines of dollars, euros, yen, and renminbis transfusing its hollowed-out carcass. It's an odd time for attention to be diverted from that awful spectacle. The cash transfusions have sent the Cable TV gang into raptures of "optimism" -- meaning they expect debt securitization to resume as before, along with Yuletide-level credit card shopping sprees in the malls, a mass splurging on new cars, and a renewed frenzy of house-building in the Florida buzzard flats. Those "green shoots" and sprouting "mustard seeds" they report seeing may themselves be a flu-like symptom. I don't know what the so-called Mexican swine flu will lead to, but the global economy as we've known it is a goner.
Even if the Mexican swine flu turns out to be something of a false alarm, it will require billions of dollars in unexpected new outlays for prevention operations here in the USA -- reinforcing the false idea that the nation has bottomless resources (the same idea that has been driving the bail-out fiesta). My guess is that the fear emanating from the story will be a potent generator of paranoia in the meantime, leading to widespread closures of things, canceling of events, restrictions on travel (official or otherwise), and a sell off in the financial markets. And that's if the flu turns out not to amount to anything.
If the flu is the real deal, it will surely drive a stake through the faintly-beating heart of that invalid global economy, and possibly even continental-scaled economies like the US, the Euro-zone, and China -- any place where things and people have to move long distances to keep life going. The US, obviously, suffers in this instance from its proximity to Mexico, and the fact that so much of our food comes from places that employ casual Mexican labor. A serious flu outbreak would be a short path to food shortages in the US, with our three-day supermarket inventories and just-in-time shipping methods. It would not be such a bad idea now to lay in supplies of beans, brown rice, cooking oil, onions, and toilet paper.
The big story at the end of last week was New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's pursuit of former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in the matter of Bank of America's gobbling of Merrill Lynch last fall. It is alleged that the dynamic duo importuned BOA chief Ken Lewis to avoid disclosing some important particulars to the BOA shareholders, as required by law. The outstanding stage-whisper coming from all this was the word "indictable" in reference to messers Paulson and Bernanke. It goes to show how swiftly events can move beyond "unthinkable" in extraordinary times. Now, former Merrill Lynch chief John Thain -- of thousand-dollar trash-basket infamy -- has come back out of the woodwork to backbite BOA's Ken Lewis over who-said-what in regard to a treasure chest of bonuses divvied up during the blur of TARP payouts last fall. Thain complains of being unemployed since then -- though one wonders why he doesn't just shut the fuck up, buy half of Nantucket with his untold millions of booty, and learn to play the oboe or something. This giant CEO cat fight was just getting interesting when the Mexican flu pulled the news-plug on it.
Of high interest to those confused and perplexed over President Obama's actions so far in the banking fiasco, I commend a great piece by fellow blogger-on-the-margins Charles Hugh Smith: Obama's Secret Plan. This analysis is low on the paranoia and high on the Machiavellian maneuvering insight. The basic idea is that Mr. Obama has gone along with all the TARPing and PPIPing because it was tactically the only way that he could give the Wall Street plutocrats enough rope to hang themselves -- and that this was the only reality-based strategy that could get public opinion in the mood for real change. It explains a lot, if it's true. Alternately, it would be very sad to learn that Mr. Obama really believes he can rev back up a securitized-debt-and-consumption fiesta by turning the Federal Reserve into an ATM.
In any case, the banking-and-investments sector has been on auto-pilot for a few weeks. Lesser banks are crashing around the country (Idaho, Florida, California last week), but the remaining Big Boyz are still lurching through the landscape like so many Frankenbanks, jazzed up on electric surges of digital cash. There are ever more hints of a peasant uprising against the castle of privilege, but no sign just yet of the flaming brands and shaking fists from the village below. This flu thing will put the schnitz on their distempers for a while.
For an excellent background briefing on flu matters, I direct you to a recent blog by Elaine Meinel Supkis. Have a healthy week.
People of good intentions and progressive predilection are scratching their heads wondering just how President Barack Obama managed to turn himself into George W. Bush Lite with sugar-on-top just twelve weeks after that fateful walk down the US Capitol's east stairway to the waiting helicopter. I'm hardly the first observer to note that Mr. Obama's actions in the face of an epochal finance fiasco and economic collapse are a mere extension of the pre-January-20 policies, carried out by much the same cast of characters.
The assumption up until now was something about the reassuring value of continuity -- if we could just prop up an ailing set of banks for a little while, the US public could resume a revolving credit way-of-life within an economy dedicated to building more suburban houses and selling all the needed accessories from supersized "family" cars to cappuccino machines. This would keep everyone employed at the jobs they were qualified for -- finish carpenters, realtors, pool installers, mortgage brokers, advertising account executives, Williams-Sonoma product demonstrators, showroom sales agents, doctors of liposuction, and so on.
This was a dumb strategy for such a supposedly bright group of people surrounding Mr. Obama. That old economy was dead on arrival January 20th. Even the kindest physicians don't put corpses on life support. This particular corpse has been placed in the world's cushiest intensive care unit, with transfusions running about a trillion dollars a month -- not to mention hefty bonuses for the attending nurses. Instead, a fast and furious wake might have been held, with the corpse of the old economy laid out on a granite countertop for all to toast and bid farewell. President Obama might have led this exercise with some aplomb -- even while directing his new justice department warriors to round up a host of suspects in the old economy's suspicious death.
What it comes down to, apparently, is a leadership elite across all sectors -- politics, business, academia, media -- that is incapable of processing the truth, and then conveying it to the broad American public. Alas, this also appears to be a common theme in history, with a commonly tragic outcome, which is that elites get ruthlessly dumped and replaced by new elites, often composed of zealots, maniacs, nincompoops, and others generally ill-disposed to the able management of complex affairs. It's called the "circulation of elites," and in times of crisis it tends to take on a kind of downward spiraling flavor, with each gang of discredited leaders tossed out for a progressively worse one until a kind of exhaustion is reached -- whereupon the archetypal man-on-a-white-horse arrives on the scene.
Mr. Obama looked to be the man-on-a-white-horse -- on the exhaustion of Reagan-Bush Jesus-Republicanism -- but he's coming off more like Philippe Égalité (Louis Philippe Joseph d'Orléans, duc d'Orléans) in 1793, with perhaps Newt Gingrich waiting offstage to become Robespierre in 2012 -- and some obscure US Army captain now toiling in Kirkuk slated to become the American Napoleon of 2015. As you've surely heard a thousand times now, history doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes. The enormities of Wall Street today are a little like those of the French Ancien Régime at Versailles. If America encounters the sort of disruptions of food and energy supplies that are brewing on the horizon, and unemployment keeps arcing up its current trajectory, civil uproars could easily follow. Readers think I joke about the Hamptons going up in flames. But the antics of the bankers, hedge funders, the CEOs, the Madoffs, and even the P. Diddy's of our time, are liable to attract murderous attention as the public mood moves from sour to wrathful.
So, what people of good intention and progressive predilection want to know is how come Mr. Obama doesn't just lay out the truth, undertake the hard job of cutting the nation's losses, and get on with setting this society on a new course. The truth is that we're comprehensively bankrupt, and no amount of shuffling certificates around will avail to alter that. The bad debt has to be "worked out" -- i.e. written off, subjected to liquidation of remaining assets and collateral, reorganized under the bankruptcy statutes, and put behind us. We have to work very hard to reconfigure the physical arrangement of life in the USA, moving away from the losses of our suburbs, reactivating our towns, downscaling our biggest cities, re-scaling our farms and food production, switching out our Happy Motoring system for public transit and walkable neighborhoods, rebuilding local networks of commerce, and figuring out a way to make a few things of value again.
What's happened instead is what I most feared: that our politicians would mount a massive campaign to sustain the unsustainable. That's what all the TARP and TARF and PPIT and bailouts are about. It will all amount to an exercise in futility and could easily end up wrecking the USA in every sense of the term. If Mr. Obama doesn't get with a better program, then we are going to face a Long Emergency as grueling as the French Revolution. One very plain and straightforward example at hand is the announcement last week of a plan to build a high speed rail network. To be blunt about it, this is perfectly fucking stupid. It will require a whole new track network, because high speed trains can't run on the old rights of way with their less forgiving curve ratios and grades. We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time.
I don't like to be misunderstood. With the airlines in a business death spiral, and mass motoring doomed, we need a national passenger rail system desperately. But we already have one that used to be the envy of the world before we abandoned it. And we don't have either the time or the resources to build a new parallel network.
But grandiosity is just another way that we lie to ourselves about where we're at and what is really possible. Surely Mr. Obama knows that hope fades where the light of truth doesn't shine. He is a charming fellow. I don't especially want to see Newt Gingrich chop his head off.
It's a curious symptom of the consensus trance zombifying the American public and its auditors in the media that something like a "recovery" is now deemed to be underway. And, as events compel me to repeat in this space, it begs the question: recovery to what? To Wall Street booking stupendous profits by laundering "risk" out of bad loans with new issues of tranche-o-matic securitized paper? This I doubt, since there isn't a pension fund left from San Jose to Bratislava that would touch this stuff with a stick, even if it could be turned out in collector's editions of boxed sets. Does it mean that American "consumers" (so-called) are awaited momentarily in the flat-screen TV sales parlors with their credit cards fanned-out like poker hands, ready for "action?" Not too likely with massive non-performance out in cardholder-land, and half the nation's electronics inventory wending its way onto Craig's List. Are we expecting more asteroid belts of new suburbs carved in the loamy outlands of Dallas and Minneapolis, complete with new highway strips of Big Box shopping and Chuck E. Cheeses? Go to banking's intensive care unit and inquire (if you can) among the flat-lining production home-builders and the real estate investment trusts on life support when they expect to rev up the heavy equipment.
The idea that we're about to resume the insane behavior that induced the current epochal malaise of economy is so absurd it will only be heard in the faculty dining halls of the Ivy League. And if America is not picking up where it left off eighteen months ago -- the orgy of spending future claims on wealth unlikely to accrue -- then what is our destiny? Based on what's out there in the organs of public thinking, it seems that we don't want to think about it.
So many forces are arrayed against a return to the previous "normal" that we will be lucky, in another eighteen months, to still find ourselves speaking English and celebrating Christmas. What's "out there" is a panorama of mutually reinforcing critical problems pertaining to how we live on this continent. Like the obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that plague the public, these problems are disorders of lifestyle habits and the only possible "cure" is a comprehensive revision of lifestyle. With the onset of spring weather and the cheez doodles and monster truck rallies and Nascar tailgate barbeques and the drive-in beer emporiums all beckoning, can the public shift its attention from these infantile preoccupations to saving its own ass?
So far, the most striking piece of the economic fiasco is the absence of any galvanizing spirit among the millions getting crushed in the tragic unwind of our relations with money. It will be interesting to see, for instance, if there is any uproar over the evolving story of Goldman Sachs's latest raid on the US Treasury, after booking billions in taxpayer-funded payouts funneled through AIG, based on double-hedged credit default swaps. Such magic tricks are understandably hard to follow, but a dozen-or-so federal attorneys with a middling background in differential calculus might suss out the trail that leads from Ben Bernanke's work station to Lloyd Blankfein's cappuccino machine.
Something similar may be said in regard to revelations last week of White House economic advisor Larry Summers' connection with a number of hedge funds shoveling millions into his deep pockets for showing up once a week to cheerlead their "innovations" -- not to mention his shadowy visits to the Goldman Sachs gravy train even after he signed onto the Obama campaign. As long as the stock markets seem to rally -- no matter what else is really going on in America -- nobody will pay much attention to these disgusting irregularities.
Since it is that time of year, and I am haunting the gardening shop, one can't fail to notice the many styles of pitchforks for sale. My guess is that the current mood of public paralysis will dissolve in a blur of blood and spittle sometime between Memorial Day and July Fourth, even with Nascar in full swing, and the mushrooming ranks of the unemployed lost in raptures of engine noise and fried cornmeal. It doesn't take too many determined, pissed-off people to create a lot of mischief in a complex society.
On the agenda in the second quarter of '09 are ominous rumblings in the oil and food sectors. Half a year of cratered oil prices have decimated the oil industry and we're driving at 100-miles-an-hour straight off a cliff into a new kind of supply crisis -- even if industrial production and global exports remain moribund. So many drilling rigs are being decommissioned that the oil industry itself looks like it's preparing for its own death, investment in exploration and discovery has withered with the credit markets, and the world may never recover from the year long hiccup in oil industry activity -- translation: peak oil is biting back now with a vengeance. Its peakness will look peakier and the yawning arc of depletion beyond will look steeper and pose a threat to every globalized and continental-scale enterprise in the known world.
So many dire elements are ranging around our food production system (i.e. farming), from widespread drought and water table depletion to "input" shortages (especially fertilizers) to sickness in credit availability, that we're all one bad harvest away from something that will make Pieter Bruegel-the-elder's "Triumph of Death" look like Vanity Fair's annual Oscar Party in comparison.
Barack Obama, charming as he is, had better drop his pretensions about kick-starting the old consumer economy, fire the Wall Street clowns and parasites who are running that futile exercise, and start preparing a US Lifeboat Economy aimed at reducing the scale and scope of our outlays so we can survive the coming siege of austerity. Meanwhile, I'm glad that he finally got a dog for the White House, because the President knows full-well where to turn in Washington if you want some genuine love and affection.
Pieter Brugel-the-elder, "The Triumph of Death"
Click image to enlarge
Even while a wave of reflex nausea washed over America last week, and the unemployment rolls swelled by much more than another half million, the greatest stock market suckers' rally in seventy years pulled in the last of the credulous. These are strange days. The earth is heaving and the buds swelling again -- at least north of the equator, where most of the action is -- and the global economy, which was supposed to be a permanent new add-on to the human condition, is sloughing away in big horrid gobs. But no one in charge of anything can believe it. The banking fiasco has introduced so much noise into the system that world leadership can't think straight.
What they're missing is real simple: peak oil means no more ability to service debt at all levels, personal, corporate, and government. End of story. All the other exertions being performed in opposition to this basic fact-of-life amount to a spastic soft-shoe performed before a smokescreen concealing a world of hurt. If the "quantitative easing" (money creation) and fiscal legerdemain (TARPs, TARFs, et cetera) happen to jack up the "velocity" of the new funny-money, and the world resumes its previous level of oil use, the price of oil would rise again -- this time astronomically because the previous crash of oil prices crushed the development of new oil projects to offset depletion -- and the global economy will crash again. Only the next phase of the disease is liable to move beyond the financial and into the social and political realms. Disorder of various kinds will rule -- toppled governments, civil unrest, international tension and conflict.
The US is doing everything possible to avoid these awful realities, but probably the worst self-deception is the idea that everything would be okay if we could just "re-start lending." That's just not going to happen. There is no more capacity to service the debt we've already piled on. Americans borrowed too much, and the bankers who made obscene fortunes in fees and bonuses in fraudulent lending managed to leverage this unpayable debt into the greatest collective swindle the world has ever known. The swindle has sent poison into every cell of the macro socio-economic organism, and further swindles are unlikely to revive it.
The rally in stocks, the financials in particular, could go on for another month or two. In the meantime, banks are striving desperately to avoid calling in more bad loans -- especially in commercial real estate, malls, strip malls, Big Box power centers -- because they don't want any more losses on their balance sheets. That can only go on for so long, too. Sooner or later the daisy chain of credibility in the fundamental transactions of business lose legitimacy and something's got to give.
My guess is it will first take the form, sometime after Memorial Day (but maybe sooner) of wholesale liquidations of everything under the North American sun: companies, households, chattels, US Treasury paper of all kinds, and, of course, the S & P 500. We'll soon find out whether an organism the size of the United States can run an economy based on one family selling the contents of its garage to the family next door. My guess is that this type of economy won't support the standards of living previously enjoyed in places like Dallas and Minneapolis.
The socio-political fallout from the inherent anger and disappointment in all this is liable to be severe. The public is already warming up for it, with cheerleaders such as Glen Beck on Fox TV News calling for the formation of militias, and gun sales moving out-of-sight. One mistake that the banking elite and their lawyer paladins made the past decade was their show of conspicuous acquisition -- of houses especially -- in easy-to-get-to places where anyone can see them, for instance an angry mob in Fairfield County, Connecticut, or Easthampton, New York. Unlike the beleaguered elites of South Africa (where I visited recently), who live behind layers of fortification, the executives of Citibank, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and a long list of hedge funds, will be found cringing in their wine-lockers behind a measly layer of privet hedge when the tattooed minions of Glen Beck come a'calling.
This could perhaps be avoided if someone in authority like US Attorney General Eric Holder took an aggressive interest in the multiple swindles of the decade past, and commenced some prosecutions. But the window of opportunity for this sort of meliorating action may close sooner than the government and the mainstream media believe. Social phase-change, as in the formations of mobs, is nothing to screw around with. Once the first window is broken, all bets are off for social stability. My guess is that the various bail-out gifts to the bankers are long past having gone too far in the eyes of this increasingly flammable public.
We have no previous experience with this type of social unrest. The violence of the Vietnam era will look very limited and reasonable in comparison -- in the sense that it was an uprising on the grounds of principle, not survival. And the Civil War was a wholly regimented affair between two rival factions. This time, people with little interest in principle beyond some dim idea of economic fairness, will be hoisting the flaming brands out of sheer grievance and malice. By the time Lloyd Blankfein sees the torches flickering through his privet, it will be too late to defend the honor of his cappuccino machine.
President Obama will have to starkly change his current game plan if this outcome is to be avoided. I think he's capable of turning off the mob -- of preventing the grasshoppers from turning into ravening locusts -- but it may take an extraordinary exercise in authority to do it, such as the true (not pretend) nationalization of the big banks, engineering the exit of Ben Bernanke from the Federal Reserve, sucking up the ignominy of having to replace failed regulator Tim Geithner in the Treasury Department, and calling out the dogs on the swindlers who had the gall to play their country for a sucker.
As I've averred more than a few times in this space before, the standard of living in America has got to come way down. We mortgaged our future and the future has now begun. Tough noogies for us. But the broad public won't accept the reality of this as long as the grandees of finance and their myrmidons appear to still enjoy the high life. They've got to be brought down hard, perhaps even disgraced and humiliated in the courts, and certainly parted from some of their fortunes -- if only in lawyer's fees. Mr. Obama pretty much served notice to this effect last week, telling a delegation of bankers in the White House that he was the only thing standing between them and "the pitchforks." It's possible he understands the situation.
Mr. Obama heads to Europe now where official hostility is rising against the Anglo-American method of pounding monetary sand down the rat-holes of “non-performing” debt, bankrupt enterprise, and bubble-levitated bonds. Our poised and charming Prez may escape personal obloquy from the quaint old-world street folk, but most of the other G-20 policy playerz take a dim view of the shell-and-pea games being played by the custodians of the world’s reserve currency, including front-end-loader bank bail-outs, the shuffling of worthless securities under TARPS and TARFS, the desperate efforts to prevent the sane re-pricing of real estate, the cannibalizing of treasuries by the Federal Reserve, the now-notorious hijacking of public “liquidity” injections by third parties like Goldman Sachs, and most generally the perceived sacrifice of everybody else’s greater good for the sake of maintaining Lloyd Blankfein’s cappuccino machine.
What’s going on now is nature’s way of telling you that America’s standard of living has to be reduced by something between 20 and 50 percent. You can have it in the form of a compressive deflationary depression, including widespread bankruptcies… or you can have by way of inflation, in which money loses its value. But there’s one basic qualification to this: the way down is not symmetrical with the way up. That is, it’s really not just a matter of ratcheting down to a standard of living half of what it was, say, in 2006, because in the event all the various complex systems that support everyday life enter failure mode before our society re-sets at a theoretically lower level of equilibrium.
By this I mean our methods for getting food, for moving about the landscape, for deploying capital, for trading and manufacturing, for schooling, doctoring, and running public services all destabilize and, to some degree or other, fail to deliver their contribution to normal daily life. Banking (capital deployment) is already mortally wounded. It remains to be seen how this will affect the food supply half a year ahead in the harvest season. Capital is as big an “input” for our method of farming as diesel fuel or fertilizers made from methane gas. The failure of banking will combine with city and state insolvency to crush public transit, law enforcement, fire protection, and whatever flimsy local safety nets exist to keep the ultra-poor and helpless from die-off. The lowering of living standards by 20 to 50 percent essentially eliminates all but the must critical commerce, meaning that most of the stores in the malls and strip malls lose their customers and shed employees, while the mall and strip mall owners lose their rents, and the bankers lose performing commercial real estate loans. As all this occurs, tax revenues go way down, schools can’t pay their employees or buy diesel fuel for their yellow bus fleets. More people lose the ability to carry health insurance. Hospital emergency rooms are overwhelmed. Health care descends to Third World levels. Meanwhile, pensions are destroyed, the elderly live on dog food and ketchup. . . .
This is where we’re headed. It could easily be worse than the 1930s, when we still had plenty of family farms, plenty of oil, plenty of factories in good running order, and a highly regimented population of workers unaccustomed to luxury, leisure, and entitlement. We’ve hardly begun to see the potential political repercussions of economic disorder now underway. I think it will start to show in a big way not long after Memorial Day, when the current false euphoric Wall Street rally ends in yet another pool of tears, and the despair trickles downward. A crucial piece of the outcome depends on what happens over at Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department – which lately seems to have seceded from the federal government. A peeved public is going to start wondering why the bankers and insurers have not been called in by the criminal division to do a little ‘splainin'. As the spring yields to summer, the Obama team’s current fix-it plans are also likely to have run out of credibility. Mr. O better be prepared to get a new game.
I spent the weekend at the yearly Aspen Institute Environmental Forum – a confab lately devoted about equally to the energy and climate fiascos. It’s a peculiar exercise, since major sponsors include the oil and gas companies and the auto industry. The Saturday center-ring panel on peak oil, for instance, was shockingly weak, led by the flack from the Shell corporation, a charming lady, highly-skilled at blowing green smoke up the public’s ass. Even more shocking is the consensus among the presenters and attendees – including the hotshots of climate and energy science and the elder statespersons of environmentalism – that the energy problem merely amounts to finding other means for running all our cars. The assumption that we must remain car-dependent remains absolutely entrenched among these people who ought to know better. Of course, the words “public transit” were barely uttered. It’s disappointing to find such idiocy among this particular elite.
But Sunday’s departure really plunged me into the epicenter of American idiocy – namely, the airline industry. They’ve been running airplanes out of Pitkin County, Colorado for at least fifty years, but they seem to discover a’fresh every morning that strange winds blow through the valley. After jerking around absolutely everybody in the terminal for a couple of hours with unexplained delays, the United Airlines ground crew announced that all flights for the day were cancelled, causing a rhino rush back out through the security checkpoints to re-booking counters. I ended up on a bus for the Denver Airport – a five hour trip, including twenty-miles of parking-lot quality traffic along I-70 where the jackass Colorado DOT had closed down one eastbound lane, despite the fact that it was Sunday and there was no work going on there.
You’d also think that after all these years, the state of Colorado might have organized choo-choo train service from Denver into the ski valleys of the Rockies, given how important the ski industry is to the state’s economy – and how incredibly fragile the airline service is. But that would be too sensible for a nation determined to become the Bulgaria of the western hemisphere. So, instead, they get up every single morning in Aspen and try to figure out whether commercial aviation works out there, and half the time it doesn’t. Anyway, the Aspen Institute was very generous in organizing the bus trek out of there, and putting up us travelers stranded overnight in airport hotels. Mine was some rummy operation called the Staybridge Inn where the vaunted in-room wireless didn’t work in my room, so I write to you in a dreary little chamber off the lobby where children are screaming from their overdoses of fry-max and melted cheese in the only dining venue (Ruby Tuesdays) along this massively over-scaled boulevard of chain motels. I can easily see the whole miserable strip becoming a ruin inside of five years as the airline industry dies. Final note: the hotel elevator proudly declares itself to be the German-made product of the ThyssenKrupps corporation. America’s so lame, it can’t even make its own elevators anymore.
I apologize for a somewhat sloppy blog this week. My tendencies to insomnia are aggravated by high altitude and I am cross-eyed with sleeplessness. . . .
My 2008 novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available in paperback at all booksellers.
If central casting called for a poised, straight-talking, and capable-seeming president, it would be hard to come up with someone better than the Barack Obama who walked and talked around the White House grounds with Steve Croft on "60-Minutes" Sunday night. He may perfectly represent the majority who elected him, though, because he also appears to be in full commanding denial of the realities overtaking our American experience.
Those realities include the fact that we can't possibly return to the easy credit and no money down "consumer" economy no matter how many nominal dollars get shoveled into the fiery furnaces of banks too-big-to-fail. As Treasury Secretary Geithner's underling, Stephanie Cutter, said last week, "Our singular focus is on increasing lending to support economic recovery. Everything we do to stabilize the financial system is done with that goal in mind."
Lending on the scale that became normal over the last decade is for sure the one thing that we will not recover. We turn around in 2009 to find ourselves a much poorer nation than we thought we were a year ago, especially among that broad range of formerly middle-class wage-earners who lived so luxuriously until yesterday. The public can't process this reality and the president, for all his relaxed charm, is either not ready to articulate it, or can't process it himself.
Everything that we're doing right now is engineered to avoid reality, to sustain the unsustainable, to recover the unrecoverable, when the mandate of reality compels us to face our losses in order to move on to the next chapter of a collective American life. The next chapter would be a society that runs on a much more local and modest scale, centered on essential activities like growing food, requiring harder physical work, and focused attention -- in other words, the opposite of a society lost in abstractions, long-range daisy chains of off-loaded responsibility, and incessant pleasure-seeking.
In retreat from this reality, we've set in motion two forces that are pretty certain to bring us to grief. The first proceeds from the fateful FMOC decision last week at the Federal Reserve Bank to begin buying massive amounts of our own treasury bonds and bills. This is predicated on the idea that the mechanisms of wealth production -- even of illusory wealth, such as the fortunes created by trading securitized unpayable debt -- can keep chugging along, spinning off limitless additional suburban villas, chain stores, car trips, and deep-fried snacks. It would be sententious to explain how this destroys currencies, but wherever "monetizing debt" has been tried before in history, that is the outcome. The result would be ruinous at every level and would lead straight to the second terrible force: social upheaval brought on by the conversion of economic problems into political turbulence.
Those two forces are underway right now, in fact, since the overt monetizing of last week was preceded by the shoveling of bail-outs, which tacitly guaranteed a collapse of credibility in US debt instruments. I'm not in favor of violence and anarchy, but after the AIG bonus affair, it's hard to imagine that we are not one more corporate misdeed away from a rocket-propelled-grenade, or something like that, being fired into a glass office tower somewhere -- and then the "first-broken-window" rule of social disintegration comes into play. Meanwhile, I stick to my time-table of six-to-eighteen months before the reckless creation of new money-for-nothing filters through the system, overcomes even compressive mass bankruptcy, and starts expressing itself in the sinking value of dollars and the revved up velocity of their circulation in pursuit of tangible commodities.
We're already seeing the first twinges of that in the up-creep of oil prices, busting through the $50-a-barrel barrier last week. Since scarcity tends to express itself in gross volatility, it's easy to imagine oil prices rising swiftly beyond the $147-per-barrel record level of last year. As that occurs, the most basic premises of everyday life in the USA will be called into question. If you think car sales have been bad lately, with oil in the $35-a-barrel range most of the winter, just wait. The newly-minted unemployed will be marooned in their subdivisions. They will not be buying GMC Yukons on 48-month installment contracts, let alone X-boxes on their Visa cards. They might be very very hungry, though. All bets are off as to how these social classes may organize themselves to alleviate their hunger (and express their anger about it).
Given all this, it's kind of hard to believe that the savvy, thoughtful Mr. Obama is going along with such a disastrous program as the one his "team" is rolling out. Perhaps his ease and confidence masks a tragically conventional world-view, an incapacity to imagine "change" outside a very narrow range of possibility. I must say I doubt this is the case. I think, he is going along, for the moment, with a consensus of wishes to prop up life as we know it at all costs. This consensus emanates from the top down and the bottom up. The millions of "Joe-the-Plumber(s)" out there don't want to rethink the terms of existence anymore than the lords of Goldman Sachs. I also think that circumstances will force Mr. Obama's hand before long -- specifically that a moment will arrive when he goes on TV and tells the American public that things have changed way beyond the scope of what they even imagined when they pulled the levers last fall and voted for an uncharted future.
Capable observers are calling, meanwhile, for a robust bear market rally moving through Spring, on technical grounds that have little to do with the greater forces roistering in the background. Reality is a cruel mistress. If the stock market rally rolls out as predicted, it will surely fake-out the mainstream media. They'll conclude wishfully and foolishly that something like "recovery" is underway. They may even interpret rising oil prices as a "positive sign" that the great groaning enterprise of the something-for-nothing economy is back "on track."
They'll be shocked sometime after Memorial Day when it all comes off the rails again. We have a lot to sort out and very little time to get on with job. Notice, I haven't even mentioned the potential for mischief and instability coming out of the rest of the world -- enough black swans to blot out the sun. Want some concrete advice? For those of you sitting on US Treasury bonds and bills, now would be a good time to get out.
While evermore appalling shenanigans within the AIG corporation preoccupied the US media last week, I made a side trip to the Republic of South Africa. The travails of that country are best summed up in this song by the late pop singer Lucky Dube, who was murdered in a botched carjacking a year and a half ago ("Remember Me").
Daddy where ever you are remember me
In whatever you do I love you
Daddy where ever you are remember me
In whatever you do I love you
You left for the city many years ago
Promised to come back
And take care of us
Many years have gone by now
Still no sign of you Daddy
Mother died of a heart attack
Many years ago when she heard
That you were married again
Now, I'm the only one left
In the family
Wandering up and down
The streets of Soweto
No place to call my home
I tried to find you
Many years ago
But the women you' re married to
was no good at all
I was in Johannesburg to give some talks at the invitation of an architecture firm, Osmand Lange, who had designed an outstanding New Urbanist project of some 35 acres in the otherwise Los Angeles-style illegible suburban sprawl north of the old central business district. The project, called Melrose Arch, was an ensemble of five-story buildings in a set of mixed-use, dense blocks rich with good public space -- a rare thing in this otherwise ultra-fortified security state of gated estate houses, malls, business "parks," and freeways.
In fact, in the car coming off the very long flight from North America, with what felt like a brain-pan full of screaming weevils produced by jet-lag, I kept on wondering if I had somehow landed in LA by mistake, so similar was the palm-studded terrain and most of the objects deployed on it. After a day or so of brain rehab, the differences became more apparent.
I spent virtually all my time there in and around Johannesburg ("Joburg") a world-class-sized city of nearly four million (in a sprawling metro area of over seven million). The official race segregation called "apartheid" was dismantled starting in 1990 by then-President F.W. de Klerk after several decades of struggle and resistance. With the population of about 50 million at roughly 80 percent black African, nine percent white, and the rest mostly Indian and Malay, South Africa's first full-suffrage national election in 1994 yielded government to the African National Congress party (ANC) led by the long-time political prisoner Nelson Mandela. The casual observer must assume that the choice for white South Africa at that time was between accommodation and suicide.
A state of rather tense provisional accommodation has reigned since then. The most conspicuous feature visible to someone from the US was the huge numbers of black Africans everywhere, but especially those traipsing or waiting along the the secondary highways in a country with very poor public transit. It looked like some kind of refugee stream from a distant war zone, but I was assured that it was just the normal flow of daily life.
Along the same lines, the numbers of black Africans employed in service jobs absolutely everywhere is also impressive. Every cafe, restaurant, and commercial venue was bursting with redundant labor. Where in the US, you might see ten employees in a given bistro, in South Africa there were thirty. Caretakers, maids, yard-men, pool-men, door-men, parking valets, waiters, cooks, attendants of every kind worked constantly in the background of the still-economically dominant white culture. Laws require the redundant hiring, and it must function as a safety valve of income. Among these black service workers were huge numbers of security guards posted everywhere, overseeing the non-human security apparatus of gates, checkpoints, and electronic entry portals that define the fortified white world.
After apartheid fell, white business fled the large central business district of Joburg for the northern suburbs, establishing an alternative universe of drive-in offices, malls, and gated housing "estates" (what we call tract housing). Meanwhile, the skyscraper district -- about the size of Denver's -- was abandoned for a while. Squatters moved into forty story towers, even after the elevators stopped working. Other buildings were just stripped of valuables like copper wire and fixtures. Now the downtown has been officially reinhabited and many of the former office towers have been refitted for apartments. But the elevators are still often broken and in 2007 a series of rolling electric blackouts made life miserable there. I had to wonder what the future of that place was, given how much it costs to really maintain a skyscraper over the long haul. My guess is that the decay must necessarily outpace the attempts at upkeep when these places are owned, in essence, by slumlords.
On-the-ground downtown, the streets were so clogged with people hurrying in chaotic flows along the sidewalks that the place took on the character of an immense termite mound. I was in a car -- what else? -- and was told it was not a good idea to go exploring on foot there. Much of South Africa's notorious crime -- number one worldwide in rapes and assaults per capita and second in murders -- takes place in the center city. There is plenty of friction, too, between South African black nationals and black refugees from places in crisis like Zimbabwe who sift down there by the millions and compete for income. But in the social hierarchy, the center-city dwellers enjoy advantages less available to the dusty township slumdwellers of distant Soweto, southwest of the city.
Soweto was established first as a kind of barracks area for workers in the gold and diamond mines that run in a straight line for several hundred kilometers east-west across a geographic rift south of the city center. The topography is visible even from a car on the freeway, where the old gold-mine tailing heaps bigger than the pyramids of Egypt glisten in the sun along the rift line. Another feature that kind of defines the ambience of Soweto is the remains of the old cyanide factory -- a chemical used in processing gold ore.
Today, Soweto has grown to an aggregation of about one million people living in various low-rise conditions ranging from vast districts of cardboard shacks and tin-roof shanties to what have evolved into streets of middle-class houses and even a few mansions. Up until the fall of apartheid, the government severely limited the amount of retail amenities that could be established in Soweto, so the inhabitants had to travel ten miles at time to buy household goods. Probably the weirdest thing about the life of Johannesburg and its companion Soweto revolves around the abysmal lack of public transit.
Every day the denizens of Soweto fan out northward to work by means of taxi-cab. A gigantic system of metered cabs and mini-vans, many in desperate disrepair, driven with infamous recklessness, serves the metro area's poorest citizens. A colossal taxi "park" (parking lot in our lingo) near the freeway entrance to Soweto's closest-in township dispatches all these vehicles to another massive taxi park in downtown Joburg, with van or taxi connections at each end to take commuters further. This exercise consumes around four hours of misery every day, in traffic that almost always turns Joburg's freeways into yet another a taxi park twice a day. Returning to Soweto after a day's work, some people have to make two or three additional taxi connections to get home through the sprawling townships. Many cannot afford this and the shoulders of the connector highways off the freeway in Soweto were filled in late afternoon with streams of people heading home on foot, some burdened with bundles, some carrying things on their heads.
The sheer monetary expense of doing all this must be out of this world for people with not much to begin with. Somehow, the insanity of it has been established as "normal," and there were few signs that the government -- now black-majority, after all -- was planning to rectify the situation. There are plans to run a new subway line across town, but at this point it is conceived mainly as a connector to the main airport. The South African rail system -- like America's -- is completely inadequate, and the mandatory motoring program so deeply ingrained -- and associated with the extremes of security and fortification -- that no workable consensus for getting beyond the current situation can be formed. Otherwise, the government was getting ready to host the World Cup of Soccer this summer and was preoccupied with directing its planning resources to that.
The casual visitor can see a pretty clear gradient of social and economic hierarchy in the two parallel worlds of white and black South Africa. There is a cohort of educated urban blacks now established in business and the bureaucracy that obviously stand above those working in service jobs and those who are essentially bumpkins coming in from the countryside or the "bush" or from the failing nations to the north. Like any upper crust, the educated blacks in good jobs seal themselves off from the lower ranks -- though politically, there is a pretense to identify with them. This black upper crust has only been in charge of things for a decade and a half. Obviously they have not yet been able to address problems like public transit yet, but it was unclear to me whether all the other categories of things there, from electric power to health services, were being managed capably.
There are as many political factions among the black majority as there might be in any sizable nation. Friction between them sometimes leads to violence. Corruption is not on the level of the infamous "kleptocracies" straddling the equator, but it is far from unknown. Right now, the nation awaits a national election coming up in April and the near-certainty that Jacob Zuma will be elected the new president. His ascent is widely dreaded by the white minority, who broadly regard him as a thug.
This white minority appears to carry on with the "normal" tasks of daily life not unlike what you would see in Europe and North America. But close to the surface you detect a resigned fatalism. Their old center has not held and things for them could fall apart at any time. The evacuations of whites that occurred with the shift to black-majority government in the 1990s have tailed down. I'm not even sure how conscious the whites are of their own base-line nervousness, though the multi-layered apparatus of security, with all the locks, gates, and video cameras speaks for itself.
The combination of the fortification mentality with compulsory motoring has left Johannesburg with a conspicuous scarcity of shared civic space. It's hard to beat the USA for this, but South Africa has managed to. The architects and developers who designed the Melrose Arch project tried to supply something that was otherwise non-existent in the country and they did a very good job. All the classes of the various races were present there -- whites, blacks, and Asians -- sitting in the outdoor cafes, often at mixed tables, while the virtually all-black service class puttered and watched in the background. The nicely-scaled main square felt like the only tranquil, open, safe public gathering place in the entire metroplex. The health club down the street where I dropped in three times in a week reflected the mix of races, too, as did the offices and business establishments.
Melrose Arch was a brave experiment. Its development coincided time-wise with the more-or-less peaceful revolution out of minority rule starting in the 1990s. There have been some copycat wannabe spin-offs of it in other parts of the city, but nothing nearly as successful either as an economic venture or a civic amenity.
On the whole, you got the feeling that all the multicolored upper crusts of South Africa were largely tuned-out to some larger forces gathering to shake up their world -- in particular the energy crisis that has moved off center-stage temporarily while banks and national economies flounder everywhere. The energy crisis will return. South Africa has coal and nuclear power, but not enough generating capacity to stay very far ahead of an ongoing shortage of electric power. They have a pretty robust coal-to-liquids program for helping to fuel all the cars -- but they also import a lot of regular oil and are at the mercy of oil states elsewhere in Africa who resent them. The white majority seems to ignore the fact that their future hangs by the rather flimsy threads that hold together the combined motoring-and-security systems that protect them. The story there is hardly over.
On the way out, I had one of those experiences that bizarrely defines a place. I checked into the business-class lounge at the airport only to find that no toilet was available there. They just didn't have any. I was sent outside down the concourse to find one. "It's Africa," the old expression goes.
At the risk of confirming my critics' dumbest charge -- that I am a "doomer" -- the mandate of clarity requires me to ask: to what state of affairs do we expect to recover? If the answer is a return to an economy based on building ever more suburban sprawl, on credit card over-spending, on routine securitized debt shenanigans in banking, and on consistently lying to ourselves about what reality demands of us, then we are a mortally deluded nation. We're done with that, we're beyond that now, we've crossed the frontier and left that all behind, and we'd better get our heads straight about it.
I maintain that there are countless constructive tasks waiting to occupy us on a long national "to do" list for rebuilding a national economy, but they are way different than the ones currently preoccupying government and the mainstream media. The Obama White House, Congress, and The New York Times are hung up on exercises in futility -- "rescuing" banks and insurance companies that cannot be rescued (because they are hopelessly trapped in "black hole" credit default swaps contracts), and re-starting a "consumer" binge that was completely crazy in the first place, based, as it was, on a something-for-nothing standard-of-living.
Meanwhile, if the buzz on the blogosphere is a measure of anything -- and I think it is -- then a new consensus is forming out there about where to start doing things differently. Unfortunately after less than two months in office, President Obama finds himself awkwardly behind-the-curve on this. It begins with the understanding that a general bank rescue is hopeless and, going a step further, that the people who caused the train wreck of "innovative" securities have to be prosecuted. The public's collective voice on this is muted but growing. It has been muted by the general air of blackmail that the banks have used to enthrall policy and opinion -- the "too big to fail" idea -- in effect holding the nation's future for ransom.
Last week, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo hauled Bank of America chief Ken Lewis into his office to explain who, exactly, received an aggregate several billion dollars in bonuses late in 2008 after the US Treasury forked over billions of dollars in TARP money to his bank. That was a good start. Mr. Lewis, being lawyered-up to the max, had the temerity to reply that answering the question would compromise his ability to keep talented people in his employ. For that impertinence alone, Mr. Lewis ought to be dragged over fifteen miles of broken chardonnay bottles behind a GMC Yukon -- but that is not how we do things in American jurisprudence. To be more realistic, a simple indictment would be in order, and then Mr. Lewis can answer this question, and a few others, in the comfort of an air-conditioned courtroom. Ultimately, that might lead to Mr. Lewis becoming the wife of a bodybuilder in one of New York State's houses of correction -- a just outcome that would go far in rejiggering the nation's expectations about how people in authority ought to behave. And such an outcome might lead to the conviction of many other brides-to-be from the Wall Street debutante pool.
Now it has come to light, just last week in the wake of AIG's latest bail-out, that previous AIG bail-out money to the tune of $50 billion was distributed to a set of banks including Goldman Sachs (former employer of then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and then New York Federal Reserve Governor Tim Geithner), plus Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Mr. Lewis's Bank of America, and a long list of European banks with operations in the USA. Since the transactions took place in New York State, the investigation of these irregularities alone could solve the unemployment problem here if NY Attorney General Cuomo were given a free hand in hiring staff to depose everyone involved -- including the hiring of caterers to bring in coffee and meals for round-the-clock proceedings.
All of this raises another awkward question: where is United States Attorney General Eric Holder in this situation? Surely the federal statutes offer some grounds for inquiring about the misuse of Treasury funds -- and many other issues arising from Wall Street's stupendous orgy of misbehavior. What I'm hearing out in the blogosphere is a growing clamor to call people to account before we are really able to move on to the massive task-list that awaits us in rebuilding our economy.
The bigger question for now is whether any of these authorities will act effectively before the public simply goes apeshit and starts burning down Greenwich, Connecticut. The dangerous shift in public mood is liable to occur with shocking swiftness, in the manner of "phase change," where one moment you see a bewildered bunch of flabby clown-citizens vacuously enraptured by "American Idol," and the next moment they are transformed into a vicious mob hoisting flaming brands to the window treatments of a hedge funder's McMansion. The moment of opportunity for avoiding that outcome is looking sickeningly slim right now.
Another thing that President Obama can set into motion anytime -- and pull himself back to the head of the curve of leadership -- is to either by executive order or by proposal to congress, shut down the credit default swap system for a period of time while procedures are drawn up to place all these dubious contracts in a "clearing" market, where the holders of them will have to come clean about what they're sitting on. The lack of this procedure is allowing zombie banks to hold the United States hostage for never-ending bail-out ransoms. None of these banks are going to survive another six months anyway, so the basic blackmail motif that the whole money system will collapse if ransoms are not paid is a bluff that has to be called sooner or later in any case. So Mr. Obama might as well get on with it.
Once these two matters are dealt with -- an earnest start-up of prosecutions and disabling the credit default swap blackmail racket -- then perhaps a stressed-out and impoverished public might be induced to not go apeshit and instead get on with the mighty task of rebuilding our nation along lines that have a plausible future.
Isn't that a question, though....
The Peak Oil story was never about running out of oil. It was about the collapse of complex systems in a world economy faced by the prospect of no further oil-fueled growth. It was something of a shock to many that the first complex system to fail would be banking, but the process is obvious: no more growth means no more ability to pay interest on credit... end of story, as Tony Soprano used to say.
There was a popular theory among Peak Oilers the last decade that the world would enter a "bumpy plateau" period when the global economy would get beaten down by peak oil, would then revive as "demand destruction" drove down oil prices, and would be beaten down again as oil prices shot up in response -- with serial repetitions of the cycle, each beat-down taking economies lower -- the only imaginable outcome being some sort of quiet homeostasis. This scenario did not play out as expected. It was predicated on a mistaken assumption that all systems would retain some kind of operational resilience while ratcheting down. Anyway, the banking system was mortally wounded in the first go-round and the behemoth is dying hard.
The last desperate act of the banking system in the face of Peak Oil's no-more-growth equation was to engineer species of tradable securities that could produce wealth out of thin air rather than productive activity. This was the alphabet soup of algorithm-derived frauds with vague and confounding names such as credit default swaps (CDSs), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), structured investment vehicles (SIVs), and, of course, the basic filler, mortgage backed securities. The banking system is now choking to death on these delicacies.
The trouble is that the EMT squad brought in to rescue the banking system -- that is, governments -- can't remove these obstructions from the patient's craw. They don't want to drown in a mighty upchuck of the alphabet soup.
The collapse of complex systems is actually predicated on the idea that the systems would mutually reinforce each other's failures. This is now plain to see as the collapse of banking (that is, of both lending and debt service), has led to the collapse of commerce and manufacturing. The next systems to go will probably be farming, transportation, and the oil markets themselves (which constitute the system for allocating and distributing world energy resources). As these things seize up, the final system to go will be governance, at least at the highest levels.
If we're really lucky, human affairs will eventually reorganize at a lower scale of activity, governance, civility, and economy. Every week, the failure to recognize the nature of our predicament thrusts us further into the uncharted territory of hardship. The task of government right now is not to prop up doomed systems at their current scales of failure, but to prepare the public to rebuild our systems at smaller scales.
The net effect of the failures in banking is that a lot of people have less money than they expected they would have a year ago. This is bad enough, given our habits and practices of modern life. But what happens when farming collapses? The prospect for that is closer than most of us might realize. The way we produce our food has been organized at a scale that has ruinous consequences, not least its addiction to capital. Now that banking is in collapse, capital will be extremely scarce. Nobody in the cities reads farm news, or listens to farm reports on the radio. Guess what, though: we are entering the planting season. It will be interesting to learn how many farmers "out there" in the Cheez Doodle belt are not able to secure loans for this year's crop.
My guess is that the disorder in agriculture will be pretty severe this year, especially since some of the world's most productive places -- California, northern China, Argentina, the Australian grain belt -- are caught in extremes of drought on top of capital shortages. If the US government is going to try to make remedial policy for anything, it better start with agriculture, to promote local, smaller-scaled farming using methods that are much less dependent on oil byproducts and capital injections.
This will, of course, require a re-allocation of lands suitable for growing food. Our real estate market mechanisms could conceivably enable this to happen, but not without a coherent consensus that it is imperative to do so. If agribusiness as currently practiced doesn't founder on capital shortages, it will surely collapse on disruptions in the oil markets. President Obama at least made a start in the right direction by proposing to eliminate further subsidies to farmers above the $250,000 level. But the situation is really more acute. Surely the US Department of Agriculture already knows about it, but the public may not be interested until the shelves in the Piggly-Wiggly are bare -- and then, of course, they'll go apeshit.
The recent huge drop in oil prices has left the public once again convinced that the world is drowning in oil -- if only the scoundrelly oil companies were forced to deliver it at reasonable prices. The public has been consistently deluded about this for decades. What's missing so far is for the president of the US to lay out the reality of the situation in a dedicated TV address. I know a lot of you think that Jimmy Carter already tried this and failed to make an impression (and ruined his presidency in the process). I guarantee you that Mr. Obama will have to do this sometime in the next few years whether he likes or not, and he'd be well-advised to get it done sooner rather than later. And by this I don't mean just vague allusions to "energy independence" or "renewables" in speeches devoted to many other issues. I mean telling the public the plain truth that we'll never offset oil depletion and the intelligent response is to do everything possible to transition to walkable towns and public transit, not to sustain the unsustainable.
The alternatives -- i.e. what we're trying now -- is to further delude ourselves into thinking that we can run WalMart and the suburbs by some other means than oil. Despite all our investments in these things, we won't be able to run them by other means, and the news about this had better get out before enormous disappointment turns into titanic rage. If Americans think they've been grifted by Goldman Sachs and Bernie Madoff, wait until they find out what a swindle the so-called "American Dream" of suburban life turns out to be.
On this blizzardy Monday in the power centers of America, attention is fixed on the never-ending fiasco of AIG -- a company whose main product turned out to be credit default swaps, and is now choking on them. Kibitzers on the sidelines of finance are forecasting a king-hell bear market suckers' rally in the stock markets followed by a belly flop to Dow 4000 or lower. I myself called for Dow 4000 two years ago -- and was obviously a bit off on my timing. All this is surely trouble enough. But while your attention is focused on Rick Santelli in the Chicago trader's pit, or Larry Kudlow desperately seeking "mustard seeds" of new growth in financials, try to let one eye stray to the horizon where these other complex systems are working out their next moves. Farming. The oil markets. These are the coming theaters of alarm and distress.
The public perception of the ongoing fiasco in governance has moved from sheer, mute incomprehension to goggle-eyed panic as the scrims of unreality peel away revealing something like a national death-watch scene in history's intensive care unit. Is the USA in recession, depression, or collapse? People are at least beginning to ask. Nature's way of hinting that something truly creepy may be up is when both Paul Volcker and George Soros both declare on the same day that the economic landscape is looking darker than the Great Depression.
Those tuned into the media-waves were enchanted, in a related instance, by Rick Santelli's grand moment of theater in the Chicago trader's pit last week when he seemed to ignite the first spark of revolution by demonstrating that bail-out fatigue had morphed into high emotion -- and that the emotion could be marshaled against public policy. The traders in the pit on-screen seemed to color up and buzz loudly, like ordinary grasshoppers turning into angry locusts preparing to ravage a waiting valley. "Are you listening, President Obama?" Mr. Santelli asked portentously.
In the broad blogging margins of the web that orbit the mainstream media like the rings of Saturn, an awful lot of reasonable people have begun to ask whether President Obama is a stooge of whatever remains of Wall Street, with Citigroup and Goldman Sachs's puppeteer, Robert Rubin, pulling strings behind an arras in the Oval Office. Personally, I doubt it, but it is still a little hard to understand what the President is up to. For one thing, the stimulus package, so-called, looks more and more like national sub-prime mortgage itself, a bad bargain made under less-than-realistic terms, with future obligations fobbed onto whoever inhabits this corner of the world for the next seven hundred years -- and all to pay for a bunch of granite counter-tops and flat-screen TVs.
I suppose Mr. Obama is burdened with the knowledge that the economic truth is so much worse than he imagined back in November that there is simply nothing to do at this point except pretend to serve up a "tasting menu" of rescue plans in the hope that markets and mechanisms might be conned back into compliance with our wish keep getting something-for-nothing forever. FDR already used the fear of fear itself trope, so Mr. O is left with little more than displaying pluck and confidence in the face of overwhelming bad news.
The sad truth is that banking has become a Chinese fire drill -- a frantic act of futility -- as insolvent companies persist in covering up their losses in order to avoid the counter-party hell of credit default swaps that would ring the world's "game over" bell. This can only go on so long. All the chatter about "nationalizing" the banks really boils down to what kind of bankruptcy work-out will they be put through, how destructive will the process be, and how much of the pain can be shoved forward in time to people now in diapers and their descendants.
Among the questions that disturb the sleep of many casual observers is how come Mr. O doesn't get that the conventional process of economic growth -- based, as it was, on industrial expansion via revolving credit in a cheap-energy-resource era -- is over, and why does he keep invoking it at the podium? Dear Mr. President, you are presiding over an epochal contraction, not a pause in the growth epic. Your assignment is to manage that contraction in a way that does not lead to world war, civil disorder or both. Among other things, contraction means that all the activities of everyday life need to be downscaled including standards of living, ranges of commerce, and levels of governance. "Consumerism" is dead. Revolving credit is dead -- at least at the scale that became normal the last thirty years. The wealth of several future generations has already been spent and there is no equity left there to re-finance.
If contraction and downscaling are indeed the case, then the better question is: why don't we get started on it right away instead of flogging rescue plans to restart something that is DOA? Downscaling the price of over-priced houses would be a good place to start. This gets to the heart of Rick Santelli's crowd-stirring moment. Let the chumps and weasels who over-reached take their lumps and move into rentals. Let the bankers who parlayed these fraudulent mortgages into investment swindles lose their jobs, surrender their perqs, and maybe even go to jail (if attorney general Eric Holder can be induced to investigate their deeds). No good will come of propping up the false values of mis-priced things.
No good, in fact, will come of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable, which is exactly what the Obama program is starting to look like. In the folder marked "unsustainable" you can file most of the artifacts, usufructs, habits, and expectations of recent American life: suburban living, credit-card spending, Happy Motoring, vacations in Las Vegas, college education for the masses, and cheap food among them. All these things are over. The public may suspect as much, but they can't admit it to themselves, and political leadership has so far declined to speak the truth about it for them -- in short, to form a useful consensus that will allow us to move forward effectively. One of the sad paradoxes of politics is that democracies do not seem very good at disciplining their citizens' behavior. The wish to please voters and the influence of campaign money overwhelm even leaders with mature instincts. In America's case, this could lead to what I like to call corn-pone Naziism a few years down the road. Someone will design snazzy uniforms and get us all marching around to "God Bless America." At the point of a gun.
It's not too late for President Obama to start uttering these truths so that we can avoid a turn to fascism and get on with the real business of America's next phase of history -- living locally, working hard at things that matter, and preserving civilized culture. What a lot of us can see now staring out of the abyss is a new dark age. I don't think it's necessarily our destiny to end up that way, but these days we're not doing much to avoid it.
A creepy feeling ushers in President's Day this year as the suspicion grows that nobody in charge of anything knows what what to do next. The usual yin-yang consensus has solidified in congress along party lines, both equally idiotic. In the White House, Mr. Obama is under excruciating pressure to "do something" as systems unravel and economies augur into darkness. Amid all the anxiety and raging cluelessness, one thing is clear: we're doing everything possible to evade reality.
The reality we can't face is that one way of life is over and a new one is waiting to be born. It's been waiting, really, since the early 1970s, when God whacked the USA upside its head to announce that we'd outgrown our once-stupendous domestic supply of oil. I remember those fervid months following the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 (I covered the story as a young newspaper reporter.) The basic message was this: from now on we'll be running this show on other people's oil so we better start doing things differently. Back then, the not-yet-lost-in-a-fog-of-greed Baby Boom generation rolled up its tie-dyed sleeves and got to work doing a lot of forward-looking things: micro hydro-electric, passive solar houses, rural homesteading, the next generation of public transit (BART, the D.C. Metro), the first wave of urban gentrification....
Then, in 1979, the Ayatollah tossed out the Shah of Iran, we got another dose of oil problems, and a year later, President Jimmy Carter's clear-eyed view of the oil situation as "the moral equivalent of war" got overturned in favor of Ronald Reagan's dreadful Hollywood nostalgia projector. As usual in times of severe social stress, the public got delusional. Mr. Reagan was very lucky. During his tenure, two of the last great non-OPEC oil discoveries came into full production -- Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and the North Sea -- and took the leverage away from the Islamic oil nations who had been making us miserable with their threats, embargos, price-jackings, and hostage-takings.
Americans drew the false conclusion that Ronald Reagan was an economic genius (a similar thing happened in Great Britain with Margaret Thatcherism). The price of oil went down steeply while they were in office. Britain could kick back and enjoy it's last remaining industry, banking, on a majestic cushion of energy resources. The USA resumed its major post-war industry: suburban sprawl building. Reaganism got elevated to the status of a religion, though it was little more than a twisted version of Eisenhower-on-steroids. Under Reagan, WalMart embarked on its campaign to destroy every main street economy in the nation. The Baby Boomers came back from the land, clipped their pony tails, discovered venture capital, real estate investment trusts, securitization of "consumer" debt, and the Hamptons. Greed was good. (No, really....)
The first President Bush's Gulf War jolted the oil markets briefly, but Saudi Arabia was demonstrably on our side in that conflict, while the non-OPEC oil supply was goosed up by production from Mexico's giant Cantarell field. The slight economic shudder caused by the Gulf War was enough, though, to unseat Bush Number One in favor of the Boomer Bill Clinton. A puzzling figure in many ways, articulate and magnetic, Bill Clinton was hardly a reformer, surely not in terms of the national lifestyle. He was in so many ways an exemplar of it. He'd been governor of WalMart's home state (and his wife sat on its board of directors). He was a pure product of the New South, the sunbelt, with its economy literally driven by everything connected to cars -- new suburbs, malls, fast food huts, Nascar. He wasn't about to pull a Jimmy Carter and try to prepare the people for some harsh realities.
Really nobody saw what was going on during the Clinton years. The public was sleepwalking in a Martha Stewart nesting fantasy. Clinton was as lucky as Reagan. The only geopolitical conflict he faced was the Balkan gang-war that attended the collapse of Yugoslavia. Baby Boomer greed went into overdrive during the Clinton years as the former hippies hit their mid-life career strides, epitomized in billionaire-worship and the eventual money-grubbing book deals both Clintons made on departure. Does anyone remember Mr. Clinton saying, even once, that an economy based on suburban sprawl building and car dependency might not be such a good thing? Of course not. Under Clinton, the SUV became our new national bird. The price of oil flat-out crashed while Clinton was in office, sinking to the $10-a-barrel range by the time he handed over the White House keys to Bush Number Two.
Poor dim "W" rode his generation's last wave of cultural inertia into two terms as little more than custodian of things set into motion by others years before. Reality was shifting starkly "out there" but "W," raised in the protective globe of great wealth, coddled in made-to-order business deals, surrounded by political triumphalists and Jesus Jokers, couldn't see through the brush-piles in his mind. (Maybe it was all that cocaine from the years before.) He paid lip service to a murky notion called "energy independence," but to him that just meant finding a home-grown way to maintain extreme car dependency and all its perilous usufructs. The 9/11 tragedy allowed him to pretend to be a man-of-action, but as the various wars and occupations ground on, "W" more or less disappeared into the deep groove of his own limited programming.
During those years, more than a few things happened to inform the American people -- not all of whom were dim, of course -- what was up. For one, a cohort of senior geologists retired out of service to the oil industry and started publishing their own dark thoughts about the world's energy future. The discussion of these matters spread to the internet, where it grew in clarity and insight. We began to understand, for instance, the connection between our energy predicament (peak oil, so-called), and the growing parallel fiasco in hypertrophic debt creation that was driving the banking system and threatening to wreck it.
Now we've arrived at the moment of wreckage. Meanwhile, Barack Obama sailed into the White House on a tide of "hope" for "change." The change was unspecified, by both Mr. Obama and the general public (and the news media that audits its thinking). What is dogging many of us who supported Mr. Obama is the delayed entrance of much-vaunted change. At this moment of "stimulus" and TARP-II, it seems to have been about a desperate attempt to preserve the hypertrophic debt economy of "miracle" mortgages, blue-light-special shopping on credit cards, and endless happy motoring at all costs. And by "all costs" I mean literally bankrupting our society at every level to keep on living as if it were still 1999. This naturally alarms those of us who perceive a need for more drastic reprogramming in American life.
Mr. Obama is not dim. The euphoria that attended his election was largely about acquiring a leader of first-rate intelligence and sensibility, compared to his lamentable predecessor. I like to think that Mr. Obama really does know what's up -- that "change" means we have to live a lot differently, not mount a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. I suspect that President Obama has learned over the last several weeks that the nation's banking system and economy -- indeed, the whole world's -- are in way worse shape than anyone imagined before January 20. He is faced with the immediate crushing problem of appearing to do something while a tsunami of catastrophic debt deleveraging sweeps away the first outlier nations and their economies and bears down on the G-7. I suspect that in a few weeks, or possibly even a few days, Mr. Obama will have to start announcing all kinds of new and more drastic measures that will shock the stunned American public -- things like bank holidays, nationalizations, possibly even dollar devaluation.
As I've said more than once, I believe this basically honest and intelligent president will have to take on the role of the nation's hand-holding camp counselor or school teacher. When the time comes that he assumes this role, I think he'll do it pretty well, even though great pain and misery will be abroad in this land.
Venturing out each day into this land of strip malls, freeways, office parks, and McHousing pods, one can't help but be impressed at how America looks the same as it did a few years ago, while seemingly overnight we have become another country. All the old mechanisms that enabled our way of life are broken, especially endless revolving credit, at every level, from household to business to the banks to the US Treasury.
Peak energy has combined with the diminishing returns of over-investments in complexity to pull the "kill switch" on our vaunted "way of life" -- the set of arrangements that we won't apologize for or negotiate. So, the big question before the nation is: do we try to re-start the whole smoking, creaking hopeless, futureless machine? Or do we start behaving differently?
The attempted re-start of revolving debt consumerism is an exercise in futility. We've reached the limit of being able to create additional debt at any level without causing further damage, additional distortions, and new perversities of economy (and of society, too). We can't raise credit card ceilings for people with no ability make monthly payments. We can't promote more mortgages for people with no income. We can't crank up a home-building industry with our massive inventory of unsold, and over-priced houses built in the wrong places. We can't ramp back up the blue light special shopping fiesta. We can't return to the heyday of Happy Motoring, no matter how many bridges we fix or how many additional ring highways we build around our already-overblown and over-sprawled metroplexes. Mostly, we can't return to the now-complete "growth" cycle of "economic expansion." We're done with all that. History is done with our doing that, for now.
So far -- after two weeks in office -- the Obama team seems bent on a campaign to sustain the unsustainable at all costs, to attempt to do all the impossible things listed above. Mr. Obama is not the only one, of course, who is invoking the quest for renewed "growth." This is a tragic error in collective thinking. What we really face is a comprehensive contraction in our activities, especially the scale of our activities, and the pressing need to readjust the systems of everyday life to a level of decreased complexity.
For instance, the myth that we can become "energy independent and yet remain car-dependent is absurd. In terms of liquid fuels, we're simply trapped. We import two-thirds of the oil we use and there is absolutely no chance that drill-drill-drilling (or any other scheme) will change that. The public and our leaders can not face the reality of this. The great wish for "alternative" liquid fuels (bio fuels, algae excreta) will never be anything more than a wish at the scales required, and the parallel wish to keep all our cars running by other means -- hydrogen fuel cells, electric motors -- is equally idle and foolish. We cannot face the mandate of reality, which is to do everything possible to make our living places walkable, and connect them with public transit. The stimulus bills in congress clearly illustrate our failure to understand the situation.
The attempt to restart "consumerism" will be equally disappointing. It was a manifestation of the short peak energy decades of history, and now that we're past peak energy, it's over. That seventy percent of the economy is over, especially the part that allowed people to buy stuff with no money. From now on people will have to buy stuff with money they earn and save, and they will be buying a lot less stuff. For a while, a lot of stuff will circulate through the yard sales and Craigslist, and some resourceful people will get busy fixing broken stuff that still has value. But the other infrastructure of shopping is toast, especially the malls, the strip malls, the real estate investment trusts that own it all, many of the banks that lent money to the REITs, the chain-stores and chain eateries, of course, and, alas, the non-chain mom-and-pop boutiques in these highway-oriented venues.
Washington is evidently seized by panic right now. I don't know anyone who works in the White House, but I must suppose that they have learned in two weeks that these systems are absolutely tanking, that the previous way of life that everybody was so set on not apologizing for has reached the end of the line. We seem to be learning a new and interesting lesson: that even a team that promises change is actually petrified of too much change, especially change that they can't really control.
The argument about "change" during the election was sufficiently vague that no one was really challenged to articulate a future that wasn't, materially, more-of-the-same. I suppose the Obama team may have thought they would only administer it differently than the Bush team -- but basically life in the USA would continue being about all those trips to the mall, and the cubicle jobs to support that, and the family safaris to visit Grandma in Lansing, and the vacations at Sea World, and Skipper's $20,000 college loan, and Dad's yearly junket to Las Vegas, and refinancing the house, and rolling over this loan and that loan... and that has all led to a very dead end in a dark place.
If this nation wants to survive without an intense political convulsion, there's a lot we can do, but none of it is being voiced in any corner of Washington at this time. We have to get off of petro-agriculture and grow our food locally, at a smaller scale, with more people working on it and fewer machines. This is an enormous project, which implies change in everything from property allocation to farming methods to new social relations. But if we don't focus on it right away, a lot of Americans will end up starving, and rather soon. We have to rebuild the railroad system in the US, and electrify it, and make it every bit as good as the system we once had that was the envy of the world. If we don't get started on this right away, we're screwed. We will have tremendous trouble moving people and goods around this continent-sized nation. We have to reactivate our small towns and cities because the metroplexes are going to fail at their current scale of operation. We have to prepare for manufacturing at a much smaller (and local) scale than the scale represented by General Motors.
The political theater of the moment in Washington is not focused on any of this, but on the illusion that we can find new ways of keeping the old ways going. Many observers have noted lately how passive the American public is in the face of their dreadful accelerating losses. It's a tragic mistake to tell them that they can have it all back again. We'll see a striking illustration of "phase change" as the public mood goes from cow-like incomprehension to grizzly bear-like rage. Not only will they discover the impossibility of getting back to where they were, but they will see the panicked actions of Washington drive what remains of our capital resources down a rat hole.
A consensus is firming up on each side of the "stimulus" question, largely along party lines -- simply those who are for it and those who are against it, mostly by degrees. Nobody in either party -- including supposed independents such as Bernie Sanders or John McCain, not to mention President Obama -- has a position for directing public resources and effort at any of the things I mentioned above: future food security, future travel-and-transport security, or the future security of livable, walkable dwelling places based on local networks of economic interdependency. This striking poverty of imagination may lead to change that will tear the nation to pieces.
"We will not apologize for our way of life...."
This unfortunate phrase from President Obama's otherwise sturdy inaugural address, echoed through my mind last week as I cruised the suburban outlands of Montgomery, Alabama. All the usual commercial furnishings of consumerist America hugged the flattish ochre and dusty-green landscape of played-out cotton fields where thirty feet of topsoil has washed away in the two hundred years since the mainly English settlers shoved out the native Alabamu, Coosa, and Tallapoosa. Along the low horizon, mall followed strip mall followed "lifestyle center," book-ending the "one house" failed subdivisions of otherwise empty unsold lots in a cavalcade of floundering enterprise. It seemed at times as if the terrain was a kind of sea-like expanse, and all the retail boxes ghost ships drifting to oblivion.
They say that the banks have stopped calling in their loans on the commercial real estate, even though the owners of the malls and strip malls have arrived firmly in default. Calling in the loans would only pin another horrifying liability on the banks' balance sheets. So all parties join in a game of "pretend," that nothing has really happened to the fundamental equations of business life. Something similar goes on at the next level down, where the tenants of the malls and strip malls sink deeper into rent arrears every month, and the eviction process is simply postponed, while the stores themselves put off paying their vendors and suppliers – as the whole system, the whole way of life, enters upon a circle-jerk of mutual denial in a last desperate effort to forestall the mandates of reality .
How long will these games go on? This is the primary question that haunts the republic as we wait for new TARPS, and "bad banks," economic stimulus packages, infrastructure renewal roll-outs, and other policy life-lines thrown out in guarded hopefulness to haul America out of a ditch.
The center of Montgomery was instructive, too. Not unlike any other city in the USA (pop. about 200,000), the former main artery of downtown commerce – Dexter Avenue, rolling out like a red carpet below the state capitol hill, where Martin Luther King's early career kicked off in a modest red brick church, and where Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of her bus – this "main street" presented a sad sequence of empty shopfronts interrupted here and there by rather creepy amateur murals depicting the cruelties of slavery, as if a remonstrance to the politicos up the hill. Most of the buildings lining the avenue still stood burdened by the clownish facade re-doos and ghastly claddings of the 1950s, which had replaced the ordered classical-vernacular decorum of the original 19th century frontages. Once the malls had landed in the old cotton fields, and MLK moved on to Atlanta, Dexter Avenue was just left to rot in the memory trunk.
Here and there around the rest of the downtown, other weird experiments in American post-war anti-urbanism presented themselves, most notably a "building" designed to look like a small-scaled Death Star, all black reflective glass, canted concrete and steel walls – which turned out to belong to Morris Dees' renowned Southern Poverty Law Center -- deployed directly across the street from the modest white clapboard-with-green-shutters house once occupied by Jefferson Davis after Richmond fell and the Confederate leadership skeedaddled further south. There were a few recently-built government towers that looked like Nascar trophies. But the rest of the downtown – the parts not dedicated to surface parking – was the ubiquitous array of muffler shops, or restaurants and churches that looked like muffler shops.
With the city center thus nearly dead, and the asteroid belt of malls and strips on their knees financially, this emblematic sunbelt metro area finds itself in a pickle. Cotton being well-past decline, and having wrecked the soil, the "new" economy of recent decades dedicated itself to building car-dependent air-conditioned suburban sprawl – the perceived perfect antidote to a previous economic order based on serfdom, hook-worm, and inescapable heat. That now-not-so-new economy of sprawl, in turn, has come to a screeching halt, as a cruel destiny threw sand in the mechanisms of reliably cheap oil and revolving credit, and the gears seized up. A mood of ominous watching and waiting pervaded the city, but many of the movers-and-shakers had pinned their hopes on the chance that Mr. Obama's stimulus bill would allow them to commence building a new freeway to the ocean on the Florida panhandle.
My journey continued on the Jesus-haunted blue highways, to that selfsame place, Walton County, Florida, where some of the most famous experiments in the New Urbanism were conducted beginning in the 1980s with the new town of Seaside. I had been there many times over the years, and I was called down to get a prize in the service of the movement, but it was a little disconcerting to see how the build-out had progressed.
The Seaside experiment began very modestly as the idea for a bohemian village of architects and artists in what was then an almost empty quarter of piney woods owned by the St Joe timber company. Seaside was designed so beautifully that it attracted the attention of every thoracic surgeon and corporate lawyer between Nashville and New Orleans, and pretty soon Seaside became the Riviera of the sunbelt's economic elite – and came in for gales of criticism for becoming that. The newer houses and commercial structures grew ever grander, as a Boomer generation status competition ramped up into the new millennium. Several more, ever-grander New Urbanist towns sprouted along the adjacent beaches, some of the most recent composed of immense mansions embarrassing in their opulence. The outcome was a little scary, especially now that the fortunes behind many of these mansions may be threatened by the multiplying fiascos of finance and economy overspreading the nation like a vicious plague.
The New Urbanists had not set out to build monuments to Yuppie-Boomer consumerism, but a peculiar destiny shoved them into that role for a while – even while they toiled elsewhere around the nation to reform town planning laws and generally provide an antidote to the fatal cultural cancer of sprawl, that is, of a settlement pattern guaranteed to comprehensively bankrupt our society. Anyway, the collapse of the housing bubble has affected the New Urbanists' business, too, and this may turn out to be a very good thing because they can put aside the distractions of building very grand places to sop up ill-gotten wealth and focus on the issues that Mr. Obama's people should have been paying attention to all along, namely, how are we going to reform the way we live in this country and what will be the physical manifestation of how we live in the decades to come.
The New Urbanists have preached for years that conventional suburbia would fail America in the long run, and that we'd have to prepare for this failure by restoring traditional modes of occupying the landscape. So far, the Obama team has not been willing to identify the suburban system as the heart of our economic problem. They can't recognize it for what it truly is: a living arrangement with no future – and an economic, ecological, and spiritual disaster. It is, of course, the primary reason why we find ourselves in the deadly predicament of importing over two-thirds of the oil we use every day.
But then, more than half the population lives the suburban way of life, with its deadly mortgage traps, its mandatory motoring, and its civic disengagements. Nobody in power dares tell the truth: that we can't live this way anymore.
But there are scores of places like Montgomery, Alabama, and thousands of traditional main street small towns that are sitting out there waiting to be re-activated. We need to do this much more than we need to build new freeways to the beach. Suburbia is not going to be abandoned overnight (even if it fails logistically and economically !) but we have got to arrive at a consensus about rehabilitating our forsaken small cities and small towns. The New Urbanists have gathered, organized, and codified all the principle and methodology needed to carry out this campaign. This should be their moment. Mr. Obama and his team should get with the program.
Just as Mr. Obama has danced into the oval office, we've arrived at a moment when a lot of people have a hard time imagining the future. This includes especially the mainstream media, which has reached a state of zombification parallel to that of the banks. But even in the mighty blogosphere, with its thousands of voices unconstrained by craven advertisers or pandering managing editors, the view forward dims as a dark and ominous fog rolls over the landscape of possibilities.
For at least a year several story-lines have been slugging it out inconclusively for supremacy of the Web-waves. The main event has been the Deflationists versus the Inflationists. The first group basically says that so much "money" is being welshed out of existence that it dwarfs the new "money" being shoveled into existence in the form of bail-outs, tarps, and office re-decoration stipends. The Deflationists see the tattered remnants of the consumer credit economy auguring ever deeper into a hole until it is buried so far down that all the back-hoes ever sold will not be able to dig it out. The competing Inflationists say that the massive truckloads of shoveled-in "money" will soon overtake vanishing "wealth" and, in the process, make the US dollar worthless.
Some of us see both outcomes in sequence: the deflationary "work out" of bad debt currently underway -- of loans that will will never be paid back, of acronymic paper securities revealed as frauds, of "non-performing" contracts entering the swamps of foreclosure, of banks pretending to still exist, of hallucinated "wealth" rushing into the cosmic worm-hole of oblivion -- can only go for so long before everyone who can go broke will go broke. Then, just as we find ourselves a nation of empty pockets, the tsunami of shoveled-in "money" designed to "reboot the consumer" (created not from productive activity but just printed recklessly), will start churning through the "economy," chasing products and commodities that became scarce during the deflationary phase -- and the result is hyper-inflation, the eraser of debt, destroyer of fortunes, and suicide pill of feckless governments.
I guess the basic difference is that the hardcore Deflationists seem to think that their process can go on forever. The society just gets poorer and poorer until we're back at something like a scene out of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Inflationists see a fork in the road leading to more overt destruction, especially political turmoil as a lot of negative emotion joins the work-out orgy and overwhelms government.
But in this moment, the week after a new president's inauguration, the deadly fog has rolled in and absolutely everyone dreads what lurks on the other side of it, without being able to discern the path through it. For example, the "bail-out fatigue" being reported suggests that congress may just call a halt to money-shoveling. Where would that leave Mr. Obama's urgent call for "stimulus?" Not to mention further TARP injections for redecorating bank offices.
I've been skeptical of the "stimulus" as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable -- since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote. I haven't heard any talk so far about promoting walkable communities, or any meaningful plan to get serious about fixing passenger rail and integral public transit. Has Mr. Obama's circle lost sight of the fact that we import more than two-thirds of the oil we use, even during the current price hiatus? Or have they forgotten how vulnerable this leaves us to the slightest geopolitical spasm in such stable oil-exporting nations as Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, Libya, Algeria, Columbia, Iran, and the Middle East states? And we're going to rescue ourselves by driving cars?
I know it is difficult for Americans at every level to imagine a different way-of-life, but we'd better start tuning up our imaginations, because endless motoring is not our destiny anymore. The message has not moved from the grassroots up, and so at this perilous stage the message had better come from the top down. Mr. Obama needs to go on TV and tell the American public that were done cruisin' for burgers. He could do that by drastically reviving his stimulus proposal as it currently stands.
Putting aside whether this "stimulus" represents reckless money-printing in an insolvent society, let's just take it at face-value and ask where the "money" might be better directed:
-- We have to rehabilitate thousands of downtowns all over the nation to accommodate the new re-scaled edition of local and regional trade that will follow the death of national chain-store retail of the WalMart ilk. Reactivated town centers and Main Streets are indispensable features of walkable communities. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU.org) ought to be consulted on the procedures for accomplishing this and for rehabilitating the traditional neighborhoods connected to our Main Streets.
-- We have to reform food production (a.k.a. "farming"). Petro-dependent agri-biz will go the same way as the chain stores. Its equations will fail, especially in a credit-strapped society. That piece of the picture is so dire right now, as we prepare for the planting season, that many crops may not be put in for lack of front-money. This portends, at least, much higher food prices at the end of the year, if not outright scarcities and shortages. And the new government wants to gold-plate highway off-ramps instead? Earth to Rahm Emanuel: screw your head back on.
-- As mentioned above, we have to get passenger rail going again because the airlines are going to die the next time there is an uptick in oil prices, or a spot shortage of oil. Let's not be too grandiose and attempt to build expensive high-speed or mag-lev networks -- certainly not right now -- because they require entirely new track systems. Let's fix those regular tracks already out there, rusting in the rain, or temporarily replaced by bike trails.
Those are three biggies for moment and enough to keep this society busy for a couple of years. But more to the point of this blog, observers of all stripes are having trouble imagining any way out of our multiple predicaments. All the possible actions tried so far have have seemed absurd. Why even try to prop up inflated house values when the single most crucial need in this sector is for house prices to return to parity with incomes so the shrinking pool of ordinary people still employed can begin to think about buying one? Well, the obvious explanation is that politicians can't bear the pain of watching mass foreclosures and the ruination of families. This is pretty understandable, and it is tragic indeed. Frankly, I don't know of any political narcotic that can mitigate the pain that results from having made poor choices in life -- even if those choices were promoted and reinforced by the mighty ideology of "American Dreaming." Anyway, the foreclosures are well underway now, and perhaps the salient question is how long will the public's fury remain constrained while they hear about Wall Street executives buying $80,000 area rugs? Surely there is a tipping point of collective distress that is not too far from where we're at now.
In the realm of TARPS and other continued bail-outs aimed at the banks, the car-makers, and a host of other corporate special pleaders, I wonder if we have already reached the saturation point. But opinion on the Web is starkly divided and a prime manifestation is the debate over whether it was a terrible blunder or the right thing to let Lehman Brothers sink into bankruptcy. Both sides make valid arguments, but virtually all the other super-banks right now have lurched to death's door and we have no clear guidance on what we should do about them. Each one is touted as "too big to fail," as well as being interlocked with the others on credit default swaps that would bring them all crashing down if one counter party truly failed. It seems to me that this is what lies at the heart of the present situation. Nobody I've encountered in the sphere of opinion-and-comment thinks that these banks will survive, and this outcome beats a short path to the conclusion that the entire banking system is fatally ill -- leading directly to a super-major crisis of political economy in which the whole reeking, leaking system just crashes. I think this is what lies behind Mr. Obama's appeals for very urgent action.
But then we're back to square one: nobody, including Mr. O himself, has really proposed a set of actions that have not already been tried in the way of money-shoveling. So this will be a week in which, perhaps, some wise and intrepid figures -- perhaps even the president -- will articulate something we haven't heard before, perhaps even something like bearing our hardships bravely. It'll be a very interesting week, I'm sure.
Tomorrow at noon, Barack Obama steps into the shoes of Lincoln, FDR, Millard Fillmore and forty other predecessors -- this time as the wished-for Mr. Fix it of a nation run into a ditch. Surely over the months of transition, someone with a clear head and a fact-laden portfolio has clued-in the new President about the reality-based state-of-the-Union -- as opposed, say, to the Las Vegas version, where Santa Claus presides over a whoredom of something-for-nothing economics, and all behaviors are equally okay, and consequence has been sliced-and-diced out of the game. . . where, in the immortal words of Milan Kundera, anything goes and nothing matters.
Mr. Obama deserves credit for a lot of things, but perhaps most amazingly his ability to see "hope" in a public so demoralized by their own bad choices that the USA scene has devolved to a non-stop Special Olympics of everyday life, where absolutely everybody is debilitated, deluded, challenged, or needs a leg up, or an extra buck, or a pallet on the floor, or a gastric bypass, or a week in detox, or a head-start, or a fourth strike, or a $150-billion bailout. There's a lot of raw material from sea to shining sea, admittedly, but how do you re-shape it into a population guided by a sense of earnest purpose, with reality-based expectations, with habits of delayed gratification and impulse control, and a sense of their own history? That will be quite a trick. Many of us -- myself included -- will be pulling for Barack. Maybe the power of his rhetoric and his sheer buff physical presence can whip this republic of overfed clowns into shape.
He inherits a government of superficially gleaming marble edifices -- all gloriously on view tomorrow -- but full of broken machinery within, infested with weevils, termites, and rats. The USA is functionally bankrupt. We have no money. The pixel "money" being emailed over to the insolvent banks has no basis in reality beyond the quiver in Ben Bernanke's voice as he announces each new injection. Yet all reports so far indicate that President Obama is bent on continuing the process one way or another.
Mr. Obama's first task taking stage in the lonely Oval Office should be to get right with his own credo of "change," meaning he'll have to persuade the broad American public that the "change" required to salvage this society runs much deeper, colder, and thicker than they'd imagine in their initial transports over hallelujah-Bush-is-Gone. Many of the familiar touchstones of the recent American experience have got to go.
Say goodbye to the "consumer society." We're done with that. No more fast money and no more credit. The next stop is "yard-sale nation," in which all the plastic crapola accumulated over the past fifty years is sorted out for residual value and, if still working, sold for a fraction of its original sticker price. This includes everything from Humvees to Hello Kitty charm bracelets.
It will be a very salutary thing if we stop even referring to ourselves as "consumers." This degrading moniker, used for decades unthinkingly by everyone from The New York Times Nobel Prize pundits to the Econ 101 section men of the land-grant diploma mills has been such a drag on our collective development that it has extinguished the last latent flickers of duty, obligation, and responsibility for the greater good in a republic of broken communities shattered by WalMarts.
The government will not have to do a thing to bring down the chain-stores. History and inertia is already on that case, with the easy credit racket terminated and new frictions arising over global trade, and even Peak Oil waiting to work its hoodoo behind the scrim of deceptively temporarily low pump prices. The larger question for President Obama is: how can we collectively promote the reconstruction of Main Street, including all the fine-grained layers of retail and wholesale trade. High tech "solutions" are not likely to avail in this.
In fact, techno-grandiosity and techno-triumphalism must be be sedulously monitored and guarded-against. They jointly amount to the great mass psychosis of our time and culture. This array of traps -- from proposed flying cars to "renewable" motor fuels -- is the ultimate Faustian "bargain." It will be at the heart of any campaign to sustain the unsustainable, sucking us ever more deeply into the diminishing returns of over-investments in complexity. Hence, the last thing this nation needs now is a stimulus plan aimed at the development of non-gasoline-powered automobiles -- married with extensive rehabilitation of the highway system. What I incessantly refer to as the Happy Motoring fiesta is drawing to a close as we have known it, whether we like it or not. Cars will be around for a while, of course, but as an increasingly elite activity. The owners of cars will be increasingly beset by grievance and resentment on the part of those foreclosed from the Happy Motoring life -- and it could easily degenerate to vandalism and violence, since the "right" to endless motoring was surreptitiously made an entitlement somewhere around 1957.
The "change" we face in agriculture dwarfs even the death throes of Happy Motoring (and is not unrelated to it either). A lot of people are likely to starve in America if we don't get our act together pronto in terms of how we produce the food we eat. Petro-agribusiness faces a set of disturbances that are certain to induce food shortages. Again, the Peak Oil specter looms in the background, for soil "inputs" and diesel power to run that system. But all of a sudden even that problem appears a lesser danger than the gross failure of capital finance now underway -- and petro-agriculture's chief external input is credit. Credit may be in extremely short supply this year, and hence crops may be in short supply as we turn the corner into spring and summer. Just as in the case of WalMart versus Main Street, the reform of farming in America is one of those "changes" much larger than most of us imagine. I'd go so far to say that a large proportion of young people now in college will find themselves not working in office cubicles, but in some way or other in farming or the "value-added" activities connected to it.
I don't see how America can confront the "change" represented by the stark fact that suburbia-is-toast. It is the sorest spot of all in the corpus of a culture beset by disease and debility. The salient manifestation of suburbia's demise is the remorseless drop of housing values in the places most representative of that development pattern. The worst thing the Obama team could do about this would be to attempt to prevent the fall of inflated house prices. Their real value needs to be clearly established before a picture emerges of which places have a plausible future, and which places are destined to be mere ruins or salvage yards.
Americans will have to live somewhere, of course, but the terrain of North America faces a very comprehensive reformation. The biggest cities will contract; the small cities and small towns will be reactivated, the agricultural landscape will be inhabited differently, and the suburbs will undergo an agonizing decades-long work-out of bad debt and true asset re-valuation. Since the loss of so much vested "wealth" is implied by the crash of suburbia, this may be a source of revolutionary political violence moving deeper into the Obama administration.
There's been plenty of buzz in the blogosphere about the imminent failure of the US "social safety net," including especially the social security program. Retirees are the biggest block of voters. They're not liable to foment riots -- that is best left to the youthful high-testosterone cohort -- but the older folks -- with Baby Boomers now coming aboard -- could be so distressed by the loss of their presumed entitlements that they will elect any maniac promising to bring back something that looked like the 1980s. We haven't begun to hear their war cries, and I hope they do not beat a path straight into some sort of crypto corporate fascism -- as, finally, every last failing scrap of American life is nationalized.
Some natural processes hide in the thickets ahead. A hyper-inflation could take this country in any weird and unappetizing direction, from scapegoating and persecution to a new kind of corporate fascism. But I'm inclined to see our tribulations governed more by weakness in high places than by real power. In a world of declining capital and depleting energy resources, the key to any successful venture will be smaller scale. I'm not convinced that any emergency could make the US government more effective at getting anything done. Our hopes really ought to be vested locally, since that is where the most effective action is likely to be in the years just ahead.
It will be stirring to watch Barack Obama's inauguration, and all the hoopla and balls, and the radiant children, and the exemplary First Lady dancing with the First Partner. Euphoria is a legitimate part of the human condition, though we know it soon passes into the heavy lifting of real life. There are many Americans of good will who would like to see the meaning of real "change" clearly articulated in a way that comports with reality, not just "dreams" and wishes. We'll hear a lot about dreams this week, anyway, of course, but then reality will set in and the heavy lifting will commence. Many Americans of good will also stand ready to face reality, to roll up our sleeves, ditch the video games and the Nascar and the microwaved cheese treats, and the internet porn and all the other noxious, narcolepsy-inducing distractions of our time, and put our shoulders to the wheel to haul this nation into a plausible future. For the moment: a rousing cry of "Good Luck!" To President Obama from this little outpost of Clusterfuck Nation.
When rocket attacks from Gaza were answered by Israeli air strikes, a great outcry of empathy for the beleaguered Palestinians rang out world-wide -- along with growls of objurgation and anathema aimed at Israel from certain quarters in the USA. They showed up in my world as a raft of Jew-hating e-mails (read them yourself) after I wrote that Israel had a right to defend itself.
Lately, public Jew-hating has made a comeback in the USA among two distinct groups: one is the extreme right-wing crypto-Nazi step-child of the old John Birch Society bunch, the idiots who believe the world is a web of conspiracies against wholesome Christian white folks. As a young newspaper reporter with an interest in political pathology back in the early 1970s -- a heyday for extremism -- I used to cover the Birchers' antics (and study their belief system, if you could call it that). Their paranoid ideology has survived the decades marvelously intact, complete with all the colorful leitmotifs including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Orders of the Illuminati narrative, the Bilderburgers conspiracy story of world domination, and a Jesus-soaked crusade against "socialism" that has mutated far beyond the quaint sepulcher of John Birch into a broad mostly Southern evangelical, Nascar-tinged, aggressive apocalypticism.
Lately, another large cohort on the political Left adopted the Palestinians as their "pet oppressed minority group du jour." This branch of Jew-haters emanated out of the humanities departments of the universities, when the faculty got bored with the Nazi holocaust, or wished to stake out some new turf in the arena of multiculturalism for the sake of academic advancement. (It even included some ethnic Jews intoxicated by new horizons in victimology.) To a certain extent, it was an academic fashion choice. The drab old Jews from the Hitler documentaries, with their shabby World War Two suits, gray skirts, boxy shoes with bad hose, pitiful deal luggage, and black-and-white expressions of horror on the train-platform-to-hell had exceeded their sell-by date in the sociology seminars. And since irony and paradox had become the stock-in-trade of higher ed in the USA, wasn't it perfect to cast the Israelis as "the new Nazis" with the Palestinians as the new epitome of victimization?
It's a cute inversion, from a purely grad school standpoint -- good, perhaps for levering a PhD into an entry position on the faculty at Brown University (or perhaps as an art "statement" suitable for the Whitney Museum) -- but it doesn't comport with reality. The reality is that decency requires the Palestinians to do two things: 1.) to stop lobbing rockets into Israel; and 2.) to come to the peace negotiating table with a position other than the idea that Israel has no right to exist. Towards both of these simple propositions, the Palestinians have been adamantly opposed and contemptuous, prompting the casual observer to wonder: what part of these two things don't you understand? Indeed, what part does world opinion not understand?
Since Israel responded to the recent rocket attacks vigorously, a new outcry has welled up about something called "proportionality." Israel's retaliation is said to exceed the lethality of the Palestinian rockets fired randomly at Israeli civilian settlements. It is curious that so many of these outcries emanate from the USA, where the Powell Doctrine (after General Colin Powell) still reigns supreme in the strategic playbook, to wit: "if you're going to engage in any military operation, do so with overwhelming force." The American apologists for the Hamas extremists -- especially on the Right, where things military are generally revered -- conveniently forget the Powell Doctrine when it conflicts with their rationalizations for Jew-hating.
My own theory-du-jour goes something like this: The current orgy of Jew-hating is prompted by rage actually derived from the perceived "Jew-run" Wall Street companies who have now utterly wrecked the US economy -- Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, et cetera, not to mention the Jewish players leading the cast of this show -- Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Sandy Weil, Bernie Madoff, et al., a veritable Jew-O-Rama of money-grubbing (i.e. a Jewish trait) scoundrels who have utterly pranged the American Way of Life in order to hide their private billions in the Cayman Islands. These Jew villains, the story goes, have taken Little Debbie Snack Cakes out of the mouths of millions of squalling KMart-Shoppers-in-Training! And must now be called out to punishment! The fear and anger over the losses on Wall Street -- and the personal accounts of millions of investors -- is being deflected (for the moment!) onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At my end, the anti-Jewish hate mail salvo opened with a blog from one Bob Moriarty who runs a web site called www.Gold321.com (and subsidiary www.energy321.com), where he denounced me for saying that Israel was entitled to defend itself against the Hamas rocket salvos. (Read Bob's screed.) Moriarty used to run my blog on his site occasionally -- I never asked him to, by the way -- and he's apparently indignant over my defense of Israel. He wrote: "...it took a reader to point out to me Kunstler is a racist anti-Semitic whining War Criminal." I was quite mystified by the rabid virulence of his response, including his cockamamie assertion that only the Palestinians are entitled to be called "Semites," and therefore that the true anti-Semites are opponents of the Palestinians, namely, the Jews. (This sort of clumsy casuistry was a favorite of the old John Birch Society crowd.)
As it happened, though, in the days that followed Bob's denunciation of me, I got some letters from people who had known Bob Moriarty from the mining industry over the years, and this is what they had to say about him:
It happens that I had in the past extended email "conversations" with Mr. Bob Moriarty. A couple of years ago I challenged him for some very pointed and (I believe) unfair remarks concerning the United States and George Bush. The upshot of our several dozen emails was that he is..without a doubt ..the most virulent anti-Semite I've ever met. His attacks
against people he disagrees with shoot out of him like nuclear powered garbage....He even accused me and my relatives!! of being Jew loving cowards. I informed him that my father and uncles were combat soldiers that engaged in 5 sea borne invasions including Italy..Sicily..Iwo Jima..and Guadalcanal!! He then became very angry and said he was going to kick my butt..at which point I gave him a place to meet me in California so we find out just how tough a blow hard ex-Marine he really was. He never came...very fortunate for him. Mr. Moriarty is one of the most disgusting racists I've ever met. Mr. Kunstler has nothing to apologize for...
And this one:
I work in the Mining Industry -- I know of his [Bob Moriarty's] websites. This is not new. Mr. Moriarity has for years provided links to anti-semitic, anti-Israel commentary. And, everytime there is flare up in Israel -- he spews even more rubbish. I have sent his comments to many people and company's in the Mining World, to boycott his site -- as many mining company's advertising on his site probably are unaware they are supporting a racist. Mr. Moriarity is entitled to his opinion on the Middle East, but when he inserts racists lies against Jews (IE. the Khazar lie) he loses any moral ground. In fact, a person I know -- Jewish -- and in the mining business informed him a couple years ago, that they will no longer advertise on his site due to his racist views. Mr. Moriarity responded by emailing a Jewish Contributor to his site, telling him his commentaries will no longer be on his 321sites. No reason given --Just a Jew fires me -- I will fire Jew -- mentality of Mr. Moriarity. Mr. Moriarity, like many in the anti-Israel/Peace movement has exposed his real reason for hating Israel --They Hate Jews.
Some of it was just garden variety name-calling:
Date: January 10, 2009 1:40:02 PM EST
Dear Mr Cuntsler, Concerning your comments on Israel: By your reasoning, if a neighbor's dog shits on your lawn you would be justified in blowing up the poor animal with a rocket launcher while the neighbor's children watched. And if that didn't teach the fuckers a lesson you would shoot all his friends in their sleep as well. Being bald, ugly and Zionist is really no way to go through life. Why don't you take some of your shekels and go buy yourself a conscience. Asshole.
What remains to be seen, of course, is whether the new spate of All-American red-white-and-blue Jew-hating will ramp up and turn into something I have been predicting for a while: "Corn-pone Nazism." We are a people now with great reservoirs of grievance and resentment. The nation is getting hammered economically, and yes, the banking industry lies in smoldering ruins -- due, no more to the Jews than to all those fine, blonde-headed WASP young men and women who marched straight out of the Ivy League MBA programs to the computer boiler rooms of the Wall Street Investment banks, where they cooked up the giant alphabet soup of securities swindles that blew up the banks. There's culpability galore to go around to all ethnic persuasions -- a regular diversity fiesta of misfeasance and greed.
The basic formula persists, though, despite Hitler, Himmler, Eichman, Hasan Nasrullah, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: when something goes wrong with money, blame the Jews. A lot of readers have sent me letters pressing me to lay low, go into hiding, be quiet, buy motion-detector lights for the house. I'm not doing any of these things, but I'm real eager to see what kind of craziness will come streaming out of America's woodwork. Maybe I should buy some stock in the company that manufactures roach motels.
A prankish fate put George W. Bush in the oval office to keep America stupid. The nation was far from ready to see where it was going in the 21st century, and he was just the figure to keep it that way, with his void of curiosity, his allergy to reading, and his panderings to wealth-worshipping, Ponzi-loving, science-hating Jesus cultists. He goes out of office broadly regarded as an object of horror and loathing while the nation, now facing wholesale bankruptcy, struggles to imagine a plausible future, like someone who has just awakened from a cheap red wine drunk into the grip of a vicious hangover.
GWB was reputed to be an appealing personality off-camera, relaxed among his cohorts, full of fun, warmth, jokes, and nicknames. He was not quite as bad on-stage as his critics complained -- his natural obtuseness sometimes came off as candor -- but he was programmed by handlers with a range of poor locutions that eventually amounted to a world-view. For instance, the idiotic "war on terror," which served mainly to portray our adversaries as abstractions. His insistence on the term "victory" when speaking of our situation in Iraq actually fooled even his worst critics into thinking we were engaged in a "war," when for years it has been more accurately an awkward and lethal occupation.
I never believed that GWB actually tricked the nation on the "weapons of mass destruction" rationale for invading Iraq. Rather, the nation fooled itself into thinking that the war, in the first place, was anything but an act of vengeance for the gross injury of 9/11. After a couple of years, the public adopted the stupid narrative that they were "lied to," rather than recognizing the difficult truth that 9/11 had to be answered with lethal force, that international hostilities are far from wholly rational, and that Saddam Hussein got whacked because he was the Arab head-of-state who was the best candidate for getting whacked. A nation in thrall to psychotherapy, and self-esteem building programs, and the "win-win" bullshit of business Babbitry, couldn't imagine a tragic dilemma when one was staring them in the face.
GWB won reelection in 2004 -- running against the weak John Kerry, "a haircut in search of a brain," as Kevin Phillips put it so memorably, who was not smart enough to pander successfully (though he tried) to the dominant, Jesus-soaked Nascar fans who inhabit the Moron Crescent that runs from West Virginia south through Dixie and then west into Idaho. GWB was still riding pretty high when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the swamps and beaches east of Lake Ponchartrain, and the president failed to direct anybody to so much as air-drop bottled drinking water for survivors dying on rooftops and highway overpasses in New Orleans. The Left, once again, adopted an idiotic narrative to explain the event -- that Bush acted to punish African-Americans -- when plain incompetence combined with grandiose expectations for a televised happy ending to instead produce tragedy.
The fiasco in New Orleans was matched by the apparent failure to police Iraq back to stability, making the whole project appear feckless and futile, and GWB began his long swoon into discredit. But two other conditions were intensifying in the background, one the consequence of the other: peak oil and peak credit. As the primary resource of industrial capitalism reached its all-time production peak in 2005, the managers of the US economy allowed borrowing-from-the-future to replace productive activity as the basis for everyday life.
GWB barely acknowledged this compound problem. He asserted that America was addicted to oil, but he failed to take the idea a step further and say that our vaunted "way-of-life" could no longer be taken for granted. If anything, he endorsed the popular idea that a suburban lifestyle and WalMart consumerism was a Jesus-driven entitlement, and his circle in governance did everything possible to replace the industrial economy with an economy based on suburban land development and credit card spending -- which was enabled by fantastic experiments in finance that proved to be nothing more than an impenetrable web of swindles.
Those swindles began to unwind in 2007 and they now threaten to sink the USA as a viable enterprise. Their exact extent and nature still remain obscure, like the algorithms used to engineer the "alphabet soup" of fraudulent securities and recondite derivatives. In this stupendous failure, GWB is joined by his cohorts and minions in Republican polity, whose flamboyant misfeasance continues to make the credit blow-up worse by the minute. He leaves his successor, Mr. Obama, a predicament so dismal that the secession crisis of 1860 begins to look like a mere procedural quarrel in comparison. And despite the temporary crash of oil prices, the peak oil problem still looms very large in the background and has barely begun to work its hoodoo on what's left of the US economy
The same prankish fate that elevated GWB may end up excusing or papering over his current ill-standing. Decades from now he might be remembered as the last national leader who presided over an orderly transition of power in a cohering federal system. The fickle public that longs for the last symbolic photo op, when Mr. Obama waves at the helicopter bearing GWB into the Texas gloaming, may soon turn on the new president for failing to return them to the Blue Light Special nirvana of days gone by.
To me, GWB will remain the perfect representative of his time, place, and culture. During his years in Washington, America became a nation of clowns posturing in cowboy hats, bethinking ourselves righteous agents of Jesus in a Las Vegas of the spirit, where wishing was enough to get something for nothing, where "mistakes were made," but everybody was excused from the consequences of bad choices. The break from that mentality will be very severe, and we may look back in twelve months and wonder how we ever fell for the whole package. The answering of that question will occupy historians for ages to come.
There are two realities "out there" now competing for verification among those who think about national affairs and make things happen. The dominant one (let's call it the Status Quo) is that our problems of finance and economy will self-correct and allow the project of a "consumer" economy to resume in "growth" mode. This view includes the idea that technology will rescue us from our fossil fuel predicament -- through "innovation," through the discovery of new techno rescue remedy fuels, and via "drill, baby, drill" policy. This view assumes an orderly transition through the current "rough patch" into a vibrant re-energized era of "green" Happy Motoring and resumed Blue Light Special shopping.
The minority reality (let's call it The Long Emergency) says that it is necessary to make radically new arrangements for daily life and rather soon. It says that a campaign to sustain the unsustainable will amount to a tragic squandering of our dwindling resources. It says that the "consumer" era of economics is over, that suburbia will lose its value, that the automobile will be a diminishing presence in daily life, that the major systems we've come to rely on will founder, and that the transition between where we are now and where we are going is apt to be tumultuous.
My own view is obviously the one called The Long Emergency.
Since the change it proposes is so severe, it naturally generates exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance that paradoxically reinforces the Status Quo view, especially the deep wishes associated with saving all the familiar, comfortable trappings of life as we have known it. The dialectic between the two realities can't be sorted out between the stupid and the bright, or even the altruistic and the selfish. The various tech industries are full of MIT-certified, high-achiever Status Quo techno-triumphalists who are convinced that electric cars or diesel-flavored algae excreta will save suburbia, the three thousand mile Caesar salad, and the theme park vacation. The environmental movement, especially at the elite levels found in places like Aspen, is full of Harvard graduates who believe that all the drive-in espresso stations in America can be run on a combination of solar and wind power. I quarrel with these people incessantly. It seems especially tragic to me that some of the brightest people I meet are bent on mounting the tragic campaign to sustain the unsustainable in one way or another. But I have long maintained that life is essentially tragic in the sense that history won't care if we succeed or fail at carrying on the project of civilization.
While the public supposedly voted for "change" this fall, I maintain that they underestimate the changes really at hand. I voted for "change" myself in pulling the lever for Barack Obama. I regard him as a figure of intelligence and sensibility, but I'm far from convinced that he really sees the kind of change we are in for, and I fret about the measures he'll promote to rescue the Status Quo when he moves into the White House a few weeks from now.
Where We Are Now
Without reviewing all the vertiginous particulars of the year now ending, suffice it to say that the US economy fell on its ass and that the "global economy" did a face-plant as well. The American banking sector imploded spectacularly to the degree that investment banking actually went extinct -- as if a meteor landed on the corner of Madison Avenue and 51st Street. The response by our government was to shovel "loans" onto the loading dock of every organization that pretended to be something like a bank, while "bailing out" an ever-longer line of corporate claimants with a pitiable song-and-dance. The oil markets went on a roller coaster ride. The housing bubble collapse grew to avalanche velocity (taking out whole colonies of realtors, mortgage brokers, and construction contractors in its path), the commercial real estate sector developed hemorrhagic fever, retail drove off a cliff on Christmas Eve, the stock market fell in the toilet, jobs and incomes went up in a vapor, and tens of millions of ordinary citizens addicted to revolving credit found themselves in a life-and-death struggle for the means of existence. None of this is over yet.
The Year Ahead
Much of what has been lost in 2008 will not be recovered: enterprises, personal fortunes, chattels, reputations.
I expect a period of euphoria to mark the early weeks, perhaps months, of the Obama team. It will be a relief to have a president who speaks English correctly and has experienced something like real life prior to politics. Restoring credibility and legitimacy in leadership will be a big deal. If nothing else, we may recover a collective sense of consequence from a president who tells the truth, even the harsh truth. The age when it was enough to claim that "mistakes were made" might be over. A sign of this sort of change may be the commencement of prosecutions for misdeeds in banking and securities that are now destroying the entire system of deployable capital. A good place to start will be an investigation of Henry Paulson for insider trading stemming from Goldman Sachs's shorting of its own issued mortgage-backed securities when Mr. Paulson was the company's CEO. Beyond his case, there should be enough work at Attorney General Eric Holder's office to employ a line of law school graduates stretching from Brattle Street to the planet Mars. It will be salutary for the nation to see those who engineered the banking collapse come to greater grief than the mere surrender of their Gulfstream jets and Hamptons villas. By the way, being allergic to conspiracy theories, I don't believe for a minute that there is some kind of shadow elite of "Bilderburgers" standing in the background to protect these grifters -- and I also believe the reason these paranoid notions persist is because it is otherwise hard to account for the extravagant irresponsibility of the Bush circle and its servelings.
Apart from "cleaning up Dodge," so to speak, and from issues of collective character-and conscience-in-office, I worry that the avalanche of troubles already ongoing will overwhelm Mr. Obama and his people. It's also well worth worrying whether they will pursue policies similar in kind to the ones pursued by Bush, namely throwing money at everything and anything, and it sure looks like they are planning to do just that. I am especially concerned about an "infrastructure stimulus" project aimed at highway improvement at the expense of public transit. This would be the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. We need to begin planning right away for a transition away from automobiles, not in order to be good socialists but because Happy Motoring is at the core of our unsustainability trap. The car system is going to fail in manifold ways whether we like it or not, and it will fail due to circumstances already underway. For one thing, it will cease to be democratic as the remnants of the middle class find it impossible to get car loans, or pay for fuel, or insurance, and that will set in motion a very impressive politics-of-grievance setting apart those who are still able to enjoy motoring and those who have been foreclosed from it. Contrary to what you might make of the the current situation in the oil markets, we are in for a heap of trouble with both the price and supply of petroleum (more on this below). And there is no chance in hell that any techno rescue remedy to keep all the cars running by other means will materialize.
A consensus in the blogoshpere says that the stock markets will rebound strongly during the first Obama months. This is possible just on the basis of pure "animal spirits," but the Obama Bounce will occur against a background of continued dismal business and financial news. It will appear to defy that news. By May of 2009, the stock markets will resume crashing with the ultimate destination of a Dow 4000 before the end of the year. Meanwhile, jobs will vanish by the millions and companies will go bankrupt by the thousands, especially in the so-called service sector, and in all the suppliers of such, along with the landlords in all the malls and strip malls. The desolation will mount quickly and will be obvious in the empty storefronts and trash-filled parking lagoons. In the event, two things will become increasingly clear to the nation: that the consumer economy is dead, and that there is no more available credit of the kind that Americans are in the habit of enjoying.
We'll turn around early in 2009 and discover that we are a much poorer nation than we thought because from now on credit will be extremely hard to get for anyone for anything. The businesses that survive will have to keep going on the basis of accounts receivable. This is the area where the crash of giants will be heard. I've been saying since publication of The long Emergency that comprehensive downscaling in all our activities, from farming to business to schooling to governance, will be the categorical imperative of the years ahead. Giant enterprises requiring giant loans to get from quarter to quarter will tend to not make it. Borrowing from the future will become a practical impossibility as past bad debts from previous borrowings continue to unwind, cease performing, and get written off. This argument implies that the federal government will tend to flounder just as General Motors, Citicorp, Target Stores and other gigantic enterprises will tend to flounder. It would be sad to see a President Obama so hamstrung and helpless, and it is largely why I see his role as largely symbolic -- as a reassuring presence encouraging the distressed public to bravely bear their hardships, and to be kind and helpful among their neighbors.
Households, like businesses, will have to pay as they go from earned income. The house as ATM is over. Credit cards are maxed out and credit ceilings are lowering like the ceiling in "The Pit and the Pendulum," preparing to slice-and-dice the old "normal" of family life in America. Bankruptcy will be the new Nascar. A lot of families will lose everything. They will sift and disperse into the housing owned by other family members -- parents, siblings -- and a strange new not-altogether comfortable kind of togetherness will become common. Over time, a lot of people will go looking for casual work "under-the-table"( and probably low-paying). To some degree, these workers will begin to look and act like a new servant class, and before too long they may be absorbed into the households of people who employ them. There will be plenty of room for them there.
Counties, municipalities, and states will join in the bankruptcy fiesta. It would be reasonable to expect collapsing services as a result. This would be a situation fraught with danger -- of rising crime, of public health emergencies as water systems are not kept up and sewage treatment becomes unaffordable. I don't imagine the federal government stepping into every Podunk or Metropolis from sea to shining sea and propping up these services. People will have to cope with danger and deprivation.
2009 may be the point where we begin to understand what kinds of places will be more hospitable to human society further ahead. I maintain that our giant urban metroplexes have way overshot their sustainable scale and will contract severely. With all the economic hardship, we ought to expect a lot of demographic churning, people leaving hopeless places and moving on to something more promising. I believe we will see them move to smaller towns and smaller cities. The reorganization of the rural landscape into smaller-scaled farms has not begun to occur -- though 2009 might be very hard on agribusiness, given the shortage of capital and if oil begins to march up in price by late winter. Eventually, the rural landscape will require the labor of many more people than is currently the case. Whatever else happens, 2009 will surely see a massive return to home gardening as budgets become strained to the extreme. As the New Urbanist Andres Duany said recently, "Gardening is the new Golf!"
The oil scene
Many were stunned this year to witness the parabolic rise and fall of oil prices up to nearly $150 and then back around $36 by Christmas time. Quite a ride. I said in The Long Emergency that volatility would be the hallmark of post peak oil because it was obvious that advanced economies could not absorb super high prices and would crash in response; that at some point after crashing, these economies would respond to the new lower oil price, resume their cheap oil habits, and build to another price rise. . . and crash again. . . in a declension of ever-lower industrial activity.
What I probably didn't realize at the time was how destructive this cycling between low-high-and-low oil prices would actually be in the first instance of it, and what a toll it would take right off the bat. We can see now that our first journey through the cycle took out the most fragile of the complex systems we depend on: capital finance. As a result, a huge amount of capital (say $14 trillion) has evaporated out of the system, never to be seen again (and never to be deployed for productive purposes). It will be harder for the USA to rebound from the grievous injury to this crucial part of the overall system, and Europe has foundered similarly -- though the European nations are not burdened to the same degree by the awful liabilities of suburbia.
Even if these advanced economies -- throw in Japan too -- remain moribund, the price and supply prospects for oil look ominous. My own guess is that the price of oil has overshot on the low end just as it overshot on the high end, and that, when all is said and done, we'll still see an upwardly trending price line over the long haul. The plunge, which began right after the $147 peak in July 2008, was as much the result of banks, hedge funds, and individuals dumping oil investments and positions to raise cash as it was a matter of the markets predicting a sharp fall-off in economic activity (and supposedly oil consumption). The truth is that demand destruction for oil in the USA has been surprising mild compared to the drop in price. Jim Hansen's Master Resource Report says that gasoline consumption dropped from 9.29 million barrels a day in 2007 to 8.99 million barrels a day for 2008. That's not much of a fall-off, especially compared to the price drop.
As Julian Darley of the Post Carbon Institute put it recently: "There won't be any energy bail-out." And, as many other people have noted, the recent plunge in oil prices strongly implies future supply destruction, since so many planned oil projects have been suspended or cancelled because they are economic losers at $40-a-barrel (or even $70). Even projects well underway, such as Canadian tar sand production, have been scaled back or shut down because they don't make sense at current prices. Some of these other newer projects will now never get underway -- they have missed their window of opportunity with so much capital leaving the system -- and so the hope of offsetting very-near-future depletions in old giant oil fields looks dimmer and dimmer.
Those depletions are very serious. For instance, Mexico's super-giant Cantarell oil field, the second-largest ever discovered after Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field, has shown a 30 percent depletion rate in the past year alone. (Pemex had forecast a 15 percent rate entering the year.) Cantarell provides over 60 percent of Mexico's total production, and Mexico is America's third largest source of imports -- just after Saudi Arabia (#2) and Canada (#1). Obviously, Mexico soon will lose its ability to export oil, and as that occurs, America is going to feel more than pinch -- more like a two-by-four upside the head. In short, remorseless depletion is underway and we are less likely now than even a year ago, to make up for it.
At some point, then, demand, even if slightly lower, will catch up with declining supply. My prediction for 2009 is that we will see two things occur, possibly at the same time: a resumption of rising prices, and spot shortages. I say this because the global economic fiasco is sure to produce geopolitical friction, and inasmuch as America has to import almost three-quarters of the oil we use, the prospect for trouble is great.
The tragic part of all this, of course, is that the temporary plunge in oil prices has prompted an incurious American public to assume, once again, that the global oil predicament is some kind of a fraud. Given the flood tide of fraud they have been subject to in banking and investment matters, I suppose you can't blame them from thinking that everything is some kind of a scam. Given feeble car sales this season, there are reports that an increasing percentage of those sold now are are trucks and SUVs.
Though I give Boone Pickens high marks for stepping up to the leadership plate, I'm not altogether on board with his energy proposal for swapping natural gas for gasoline in motor fuels while we swap out wind power for natural gas in electric power generation. I don't believe that the ballyhooed shale-gas-plays of the last few years will prove-out long-term, as some huckster's claim. They are expensive to drill and run, and they all tend to deplete very quickly -- around one year. I'm not convinced we have the capital or the resources even to come up with the steel necessary to drill for it. Anyway, the last thing we need is a way to prolong our car-dependency.
In the meantime, there are still those who hope (as described above) that various alt.energy systems will insure the continuation of Happy Motoring. This is an idle hope, and 2009 will be very sobering for those who imagine that hybrid cars, or electric cars, or "air" cars, or natural gas cars, or any other kind of car technology will save the day. Even if President Obama mounts an "infrastructure stimulus" program, it will not keep up with all the necessary routine road repair that our highway system requires. The extreme financial hardship faced by localities and states insures that they will have to postpone a lot of expensive highway maintenance -- even if the federal government fixes a big bunch of bridges and tunnels -- and so we face the interesting prospect that our roadway systems will enter their own deadly zone of systemic failure even before the whole car issue is settled.
I am waiting to see whether Mr. Obama will undertake a restoration of passenger railroad service. I've said enough about this in the past, but it's worth reiterating that a failure to get comprehensive passenger rail service going will be a sign of how fundamentally unserious we are as a nation.
The Specter of Inflation
This is the "other shoe" that a lot of people are waiting to drop. Right now we are caught up in a compressive debt deflation as mortgages stop "performing" and loans of all kinds are welshed on. Since money is loaned into existence, and a great many loans are not being repaid, then a lot of money is going out of existence. That's what I mean when I say that capital is leaving the system. At the same time, the Federal Reserve has made good on its promise to drop money from helicopters if necessary to prevent an implosion of the banking system (as all that older money goes out of existence), and so it's now a question as to when the amount of new money will exceed the disappeared old money. (Of course when I say money, I mean "money," because we are dealing here in a shadow realm of assumed value.) In any case, there is bound to be a lag period between the time that the Fed's money is dropped from the choppers and the time it actually filters through the banks and other recipients to the so-called "real economy" of people who buy and sell real things. The credible estimates I hear run between six and 18 months.
I'll only venture to guess that we could see the start of serious inflation sometime in 2009. To some extent, all currencies are now free-falling together, some at slightly faster rates than others, but the situation of the US dollar is so grotesquely dire, and our structural imbalances so monumental, that it is hard to imagine that our currency will not win the international race to the bottom. Gold resumed its movement upward against the dollar a week before Christmas, and that may be an early sign. The government -- and anyone badly in debt -- benefits much more from inflation than deflation, so every effort will be made to avert the latter. The trouble lies in the government's dumb incapacity to control dangerous things that it sets in motion, so that an inflationary campaign to avoid compressive deflation can so easily lead to a fiasco of super or hyper inflation -- the kind that kills governments and turns societies into murderous monsters. I'll forecast the that the US dollar is worth 40 percent of its current value by next Christmas.
Well, now, who the hell knows what's in store. Aside from a few bombs here and there, and pirates skulking around the horn of Africa, the world scene was miraculously free of major incidents in 2008 -- perhaps the worst being a toss up between the September Mumbai bombings and the fiasco in Georgia, where the US prompted Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili to send troops into the South Ossetia region and the move was answered by overwhelming force from neighboring Russia, leaving the US looking feckless and retarded for our troubles. But otherwise, there wasn't a whole lot of action out there.
Until the last few days of the year, that is. I'm sure the ever-growing cohort of American anti-semites who send me emails will be tickled when I assert that the Hamas rocket attacks against Israel of recent days guaranteed a sharp response from Israel -- and now, of course, Hamas is playing the crybaby card: "... what'd we do to deserve this...?" Well, you fucking fired a bunch rockets into Israel. Did you ever hear of cause-and-effect? This matter requires no further elucidation, except that it seems to suggest a ramping back up of hostilities. I wonder if it is the beginning of a new coordinated offensive by Islamic extremism aimed at taking advantage of the West's current economic plight (and the West's probable aversion to anything that will complicate its desired recovery). We'll know in a month or so, I think, since any coordinated campaign (if such a thing were possible) might well be aimed at confounding the new American president.
The other hot corner of the world right now is the India-Pakistan border where the 60-year-old rivalry, which has already produced three wars, looks to be gearing up for yet another round. I'm not the first one to say that Pakistan is an extremely dangerous regional player, being an economic basket case, possessing a score or so of nuclear bombs, harboring more Islamic fundamentalist maniacs than any other place in the world, and having a government held together with duct tape and twine. The caper in Mumbai last September could well have been construed as an act of war, but somehow India kept its head. Who knows where this is going. . . .
So far I have only described what is already obviously going on. Add to this the likelihood that Iran is closer to achieving membership in the atomic weapon club. They've been spinning their centrifuges all year and nobody has done anything about it. My guess is that neither the US nor Israel will attempt to take out their facilities in the year ahead. If Iran used a nuclear device against Israel, or anybody else, they would be asking to become, in turn, the world's largest ashtray. End of story. A different story, though, is how Iran might behave if and when the US Military presence in Iraq is reduced. I can imagine Iran doing anything possible surreptitiously to gain control over Iraq's southern oil regions around Basra, but even the Iraqi Shia don't like the Iranian Shia that much. Anyway, iran's economy has suffered hugely from the fall in oil prices. That nation may be in for more internal trouble than they have seen in thirty years since the Shah was tossed out by the minions of Ayatollah Khomeini.
There's been a lot of sentiment the past year that as the US and the Europe fall into economic disarray, China would emerge as the great new hegemonic superpower. While it's come a long way in a quarter-century, China's internal problems are still enormous and worsening. They're in trouble with water, food imports, mass unemployment, and energy. They have locked in some oil contracts around the world, but they are still susceptible to vagaries in the oil markets and Black Swan events. As the US consumer economy falls into a coma, and the shipping containers from China to WalMart get sparser, the Chinese government will face the wrath of millions of unemployed workers. I believe they will struggle through 2009, perhaps growing more surly as the US dollar inflates and their holdings of treasury bills begins to look more like a swindle.
Russia may be suffering economically for the moment due to the crash of oil prices, but they are energy resource-rich -- at least for the next couple of decades -- and if they don't like the current price, they can keep more of their oil in the ground until the price looks more attractive. I think Mr. Putin has the confidence of the Russian people and will survive the current malaise.
Japan remains a riddle wrapped in toasted nori. They're beggaring their own factory workers to stay solvent. Their banking sector has been zombified for a generation. They import 95 percent of the energy they use. Do they have a plan? One can imagine them sliding in resignation back to something like the sixteenth century, giving up the whole industrial circus as more trouble than it's worth, just as they once gave up on firearms.
The over-arching geopolitical theme of 2009 will be the end of robust globalism as we've known it for some time. Reduced trade, competition for energy resources, sore feelings over debts and currencies will drive the nations inward or, at least, direct their energies toward their own regions. Note to Tom Friedman: the world turned out to be round after all.
The big theme for 2009 economically will be contraction. The end of the cheap energy era will announce itself as the end of conventional "growth" and the shrinking back of activity, wealth, and populations. Contraction will come as a great shock to a world of conventionally programmed economists. They will toil and sweat to account for it, and they will probably be wrong. Unfortunately, this contraction will do its work in unpleasant ways, driving down standards of living, shearing away hopes and expectations for a particular life of comfort, and introducing disorder to so many of the systems we have depended on for so long. People will starve, lose their homes, lose incomes and status, and lose the security of living in peaceful societies. It will become clear that the Long Emergency is underway.
My hope for the year, at least for my own society, is that we will transition away from being a nation of complacent, distracted, over-fed clowns, to become a purposeful and responsible people willing to put their shoulders to the wheel to get some things done. My motto for the new year: "no more crybabies!"
Zounds! Public sentiment toward the accelerating economic fiasco has shifted, seemingly overnight, from a mood of nauseated amazement to one of panicked grievance as the United States moves closer to an apparent comprehensive collapse -- and so ill-timed, wouldn't you know it, to coincide with the annual rigors of Santa Claus. The tipping point seems to be the Bernie Madoff $50 billion Ponzi scandal, which represents the grossest failure of authority and hence legitimacy in finance to date in as much as Mr. Madoff was a former chairman of the NASDAQ, for godsake. It's like discovering that Ben Bernanke is running a meth lab inside the Federal Reserve. And out in the heartland, of course, there is the spectacle of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich trying to desperately dodge a racketeering rap behind an implausible hairdo.
What seems to spook people now is the possibility that everybody in charge of everything is a fraud or a crook. Legitimacy has left the system. Not even the the legions of Obama are immune as his reliance on Wall Street capos Robert Rubin, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers seem tainted by the same reckless thinking that brought on the fiasco. His pick last week for chief of the SEC, Mary Shapiro, is already being dissed as a shill for the Big Bank status quo. In a few days we'll discover what kind of bonuses are being ladled out by the remaining Wall Street banks with TARP money and a new chorus of howls will ring out.
This is very dangerous territory. In dollar terms, the numbers being applied to the various problems are so colossal -- trillions! -- that the death of our currency seems assured. And in defiance of congress's express intentions, none of the TARP "money" has been applied to its targeted purpose of buying up "toxic" (i.e. fraudulent) securities hidden in the vaults of banks, pension funds, and municipal portfolios.
George W, Bush's personal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler is designed solely to postpone their bankruptcy and mass job layoffs until after the holidays. Otherwise, the $17.4 billion will probably be used by the companies to underwrite the extensive legal work required for the moment they must declare bankruptcy -- when Mr. Obama is in the White House. Meanwhile, the President-elect has ramped up his job-creation target overnight from two to three million, and some observers are catching a whiff of Soviet-style economic engineering ("...we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us....").
The years since Jimmy Carter have produced an astoundingly flaccid public, sunk in various addictions and distractions, but this is about to change. The darkling mood of political protest and violent activism that saturated my own young adult years is scudding up again on the horizon. Mr. Obama's pick for attorney general, the mild-looking Eric Holder, may be the key figure in the early months of the new government. If he doesn't commence some aggressive investigations and prosecutions -- beginning with Henry Paulson for insider trading when he was in charge of Goldman Sachs and shorting his own company's mortgage-backed securities -- then the whole Obama enterprise could fall under suspicion of illegitimacy. The bums who ran the US banking sector into a ditch have to account for their turpitudes. They can't be allowed to hide under a TARP.
Unfortunately, the legal system, and probably the legislative system, will be so buried in procedural bullshit from the unwind of countless enterprises and institutions, and the sorting out of the remnants, that it remains to be seen whether this generation of people-in-charge can even embark on a fresh start of anything connected to real everyday life in America. All this is starting to alarm the tattered residue of the middle classes, and from here it's a very short path to them being really pissed off.
When legitimacy erodes, anything goes. Nothing is respected including rules and personalities. The center doesn't hold and the new vacuum there is a tumultuous place. The same crisis of authority and legitimacy is spreading from nation to nation now. Soon, China will contend with a discontented army of the unemployed. Greece has been in an uproar for two weeks. Belgium's government just collapsed. Trade barriers are going up. Exports are falling away. The world's energy markets are not immune to these disorders. I would expect problems with the currently seamless supply lines that bring America two-thirds of the oil we use. Even a mild disruption of oil supplies could attach an anvil to the ankle of an economy already falling off a cliff.
Right now, the overwhelming sentiment is to get this country back to where we were, say, ten years ago, when everything was humming nicely: Clinton nostalgia. We're definitely not gong back there, though. It's an idle wish. And any set of policies designed to lead in that direction will prove very disappointing. Our destination is a land of much smaller-scaled local economies. We could retain our federal ties if the federal government can scale back appropriately from the bloated, feckless enterprise it has become. Otherwise, it might only get in the way and make matters worse, and the public in one region or another of North America might reach a decision that they are better off without it. That would be what's called a revolution.
The peak oil story has not been nullified by the scramble to unload every asset for cash -- including whomping gobs of oil contracts -- during this desperate season of bank liquidation. The main implication of the peak oil story is that we won't be able to generate the kind of economic growth that defined our way of life for decades because the primary energy resources needed for it will be contracting.
Just as global oil production peaked, our economy evolved into a morbid hypertrophy, and the chief manifestation of it was the suburban sprawl-building fiesta that has now climaxed in the real estate bust. By the early 21st century, when so much American manufacturing had been swapped out to Asia, there was no business left except sprawl-building -- a manifold tragedy which wrecked the banks that financed it, and left the ordinary people mortgaged to it with ruinous liabilities.
That economy is now in its death throes. The "normality" it represents to so many Americans is gone and can't be brought back, no matter how wistfully we watch it recede. Even so, it was obviously not good for the country. The terrain of North America has been left scarred by unlovable objects and baleful futureless vistas that, from now on, will shed whatever pecuniary value they once had. It represents the physical counterpart to the financial mess that has been left to the young generations to clean up -- and the job will take a very long time.
We have to, so to speak, get to place mentally where we can face the kinds of change that are now necessary and unavoidable. We're not there yet. It's not clear whether the elected new national leadership knows just how severe the required changes will really be. Surely the public would be shocked to grasp what's in store. Probably the worst thing we can do now would be to mount a campaign to stay where we are, lost in raptures of happy motoring and blue-light-special shopping.
The economy we're evolving into will be un-global, necessarily local and regional, and austere. It won't support even our current population. This being the case, the political fallout is also liable to be severe. For one thing, we'll have to put aside our sentimental fantasies about immigration. This is almost impossible to imagine, since that narrative is especially potent among the Democratic Party members who are coming in to run things. A tough immigration policy is exactly the kind of difficult change we have to face. This is no longer the 19th century. The narrative has to change.
The new narrative has to be about a managed contraction -- and by "managed" I mean a way that does not produce civil violence, starvation, and public health disasters. One of the telltale signs to look for will be whether the Obama administration bandies around the word "growth." If you hear them use it, it will indicate that they don't understand the kind of change we face.
It is hugely ironic that the US automobile industry is collapsing at this very moment, and the ongoing debate about whether to "rescue" it or not is an obvious kabuki theater exercise because this industry is hopeless. It is headed into bankruptcy with one hundred percent certainty. The only thing in question is whether the news of its death will spoil the Christmas of those who draw a paycheck from it, or those whose hopes for an easy retirement are vested in it. But American political-economy being very Santa Claus oriented for recent generations, the gesture will be made. A single leaky little lifeboat will be lowered and the chiefs of the Big Three will be invited to go for a brief little row, and then they will sink, glug, glug, glug, while the rusty old Titanic of the car industry slides diagonally into the deep behind them, against a sickening greenish-orange sunset backdrop of the morbid economy.
A key concept of the economy to come is that size matters -- everything organized at the giant scale will suffer dysfunction and failure. Giant companies, giant governments, giant institutions will all get into trouble. This, unfortunately, doesn't bode so well for the Obama team and it is salient reason why they must not mount a campaign to keep things the way they are and support enterprises that have to be let go, including many of the government's own operations. The best thing Mr. Obama can do is act as a wise counselor companion-in-chief to a people who now have to leave a lot behind in order to move forward into a plausible future. He seems well-suited to this task in sensibility and intelligence. The task will surely include a degree of pretense that he is holding some familiar things together and propping up some touchstones of the comfortable life. But the truth is we are all going to the same unfamiliar new territory.
The economy we're moving into will have to be one of real work, producing real things of value, at a scale consistent with energy resource reality. I'm convinced that farming will come much closer to the center of economic life, as the death of petro-agribusiness makes food production a matter of life and death in America -- as opposed to the disaster of metabolic entertainment it is now. Reorganizing the landscape itself for this finer-scaled new type of farming is a task fraught with political peril (land ownership questions being historically one of the main reasons that societies fall into revolution). The public is completely unprepared for this kind of change. We still think that "the path to success" is based on getting a college degree certifying people for a lifetime of sitting in an office cubicle. This is so far from the approaching reality that it will be eventually viewed as a sick joke -- like those old 1912 lithographs of mega-cities with Zeppelins plying the air between Everest-size skyscrapers.
The crucial element in the transformation underway will be emotion. The American experience for a few generations has produced an adult population with very childish instincts, increasingly worse each decade. For instance, the desperate power fantasies among the younger tattooed lumpenproles -- those with next-to-zero real economic power -- suggest a certain unappetizing playing-out of resource competition when the supply of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi starts to dwindle. But even the heretofore gainfully employed middle classes are pretty lost in fantasies at least of comfort an convenience. For years now, I have wondered how their sense of grievance and resentment will be expressed when the supermarket shelves run bare and the cardboard signs get taped over the local gas pump and the cable TV gets cut off for non-payment. You wonder, to put it bluntly, how far gone we really are.
ath stars, leaving Iceland with a pariah currency. Since it has to import just about everything, and it suddenly finds itself unable to pay for imports, the people are stripping the grocery markets of whatever remains there now. You wonder what they will do in two weeks. Ten years from now there may be 32,000 of them left, subsisting on blubber sandwiches.
I exaggerate perhaps a little, but who really knows where all this leads? Here in the USA, the Treasury, enjoying new and seemingly limitless powers of discretionary spending, has begun shoveling dollars into every truck that backs up to the loading dock. The numbers are staggering. In ten days it's reached into the trillions in loans and handouts. Most of this money is getting sucked directly into the black hole of debt and margin calls of one kind or another. This is previously-presumed wealth that is now un-presumed. It's leaving the system, never to be seen again. One useful way of thinking about it is to regard it as our society's previous borrowings against our own future. Thus, we are seeing our future vanish into a black hole -- our future comfort, health, and basic nourishment.
This is the kind of fiasco that brings down governments, propels societies into revolutions, and starts wars. In a few months, America will be full of angry economic losers. We're not the same nation that crowded around the old radio consoles for Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats. Back then, we were mostly a highly-disciplined, regimented, industrial society full of citizens who mostly did what they were told to do, and mostly trusted in authority. Today we're a nation of tattooed barbarian "consumers" with no impulse control, a swollen sense of entitlement, ruled by a set of authorities ranging from one G.W. Bush to the grifter-billionaire pantheon of Wall Street CEOs -- now heading into secret bunkers with their stashes of krugerrands, freeze-dried veal Milanese, and private security squads armed with XM-8 carbines.
I go along with Nassim Nicholas Taleb's idea -- read "The Black Swan" -- that nobody really knows anything. We construct our narratives to try and explain circumstances that are unraveling non-linearly before us, and some narratives are more plausible than others, depending on your vantage point. There are infinite narratives. This is nothing more than my narrative. The circumstances we're entering appear, for the moment, to take the shape of a compressive deflationary depression with the cherry-on-top add-on of a hyper-inflation further down the road -- meaning initially that jobs, incomes, and pensions are lost, but that later on even the little money that people manage to get -- perhaps mostly from government hand-outs of one kind or another -- steadily loses its value. Every way you jigger things, it just ends up meaning the same thing: a much poorer society. It certainly won't be a society of recreational shoppers plying the Target store aisles for scented candles and home accents. Hyper-inflation could make old debts meaningless, but it would also make credit meaningless and spending absurd.
Given the way our society has evolved to operate -- as an endless upward spiral of borrowings -- you can see an awful lot of things not working anymore, and an awful lot of people not working in them or at them. Maybe the governments of the G-7 will get lending unstuck at the upper levels, but who, exactly, is able to borrow now besides companies on the verge of bankruptcy -- and why continue to lend to them? (Except to maintain the pretense that "something is being done.") Besides, there's much too much previously borrowed money that won't ever paid back, and the "work-out" of all that debt only implies the continued distress sale of any-and-all assets -- so that the USA in effect becomes yard-sale nation.
Personally, I think all the rejiggering in the world of numbers and indexes will not solve anything, and really only represents a kind obsessive-compulsive neurosis related to numerology that will do nothing to readjust our daily activities toward the production of things that have real and enduring value. In my narrative, the fate of industrial nations really depends on energy resources. The price of oil may be going down for the moment -- perhaps due to the deleveraging of hedge funds, banks, and invested individuals, perhaps combined with a perception of "demand destruction" -- but the geology and geopolitics of oil have not changed since June of this year when oil was at $147. Let's say US oil consumption is down one million barrels of oil a day. Within the next two years, we're liable to lose more than that in import declines from Mexico and Venezuela alone. The International Energy Agency's latest estimate is for only slightly less of an increase in worldwide oil demand than was previously posted. It's still a net demand increase. World oil consumption still exceeds world production now, perhaps permanently so. Finally, the current plunge of oil prices has suddenly halted the very capital ventures in exploration and development that were hoped to increase the worldwide supply of oil. All this portends an aggravation of oil supply and allocation problems in the five years ahead, and ultimately much more expensive, harder-to-get oil.
What we can't face is the prospect that we might become something other than an industrial "consumer" society. My narrative includes the conviction that we will have trouble producing food for ourselves as petro-agriculture fails, and since society can't go on without food production, I see this activity coming back much closer to the center of our daily lives. We're not ready to think about that. The downside of our unreadiness may be that a lot of Americans will go hungry in the decade ahead.
None of this is an argument for despair, by the way, but it certainly invokes the need for steeply revised expectations and serious attention to a national "to-do" list. We're on our way to becoming another nation, whether we like it or not. No amount of numerological augury or even hand-wringing will change that. The big question for, say, the 24 months ahead is: how disorderly will we allow this transition to be?