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’ latest raid on the U.S. 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.
James Howard Kunstler
for Markets and Money