Burning Down the House
By Jim Kunstler
Behind all the blather and bullshit about the Federal Reserve’s rescue gambits and the machinations of the ratings agencies, and the wiles of foreign sovereign wealth, and the incomprehensible mysteries of markets, and the various weather forecasts of a gathering “recession” is the simple fact that the USA is a way poorer nation than we imagined ourselves to be six months ago. The American economy has been running on the fumes of “creatively engineered” finance (i.e. new-and-improved swindling) for years, and now these swindles are unraveling. In their aftermath, they leave empty wallets, drained bank accounts, plundered retirements funds, boiled away capital reserves, worthless stocks, bankrupt companies, vandalized housing tracts, ruined families, and Wall Street executives who are still pulling down multimillion-dollar pay packages despite running their companies into the ground.
We’re burning down the house and kidding ourselves that there is a remedy for it. All the rate cuts and loans to big banks and bank-like corporate organisms, and “monoline” bond insurers, and mortgage mills amount to little more than a final desperate shell game to conceal the radioactive pea of aggregate loss. The losses are everywhere, and when you add up seven billion here and eleven billion there they probably amount to something like a trillion dollars in sheer capital evaporation — not counting the abstract “positions” that the capital was leveraged onto by the playerz and boyz who mistook algorithms for productive activity.
The shell game may run a few more weeks but personally I believe the timbers are burning. The losses are no longer “contained” or concealable. A consensus has now formed that we’re in for a “recession.” The idea is that, yes, this seems to be the low arc of the business cycle. Fewer Hamptons villas will be redecorated in the interim. We’ll gird our loins and get through the bad weather and when the sun shines again, we’ll be ready with new algorithms for new sport-with-capital.
Uh-uh. Think again. This is not so much financial bad weather as financial climate change. Something is happenin’ Mr Jones, and you don’t know what it is, do ya? There has been too much misbehavior and it can no longer be mitigated. We’re not heading into a recession but a major depression, worse than the fabled trauma of the 1930s. That one occurred against the background of a society that had plenty of everything except money. Back then, we had plenty of mineral resources, lots of trained-and-regimented manpower, millions of productive family farms, factories that were practically new, and more than 90 percent left of the greatest petroleum reserve anywhere in the world. It took a world war to get all that stuff humming cooperatively again, and once it did, we devoted its productive capacity to building an empire of happy motoring leisure. (Tragic choice there.)
This new depression, which I call The Long Emergency, will play out against the background of a society that has pissed away its oil endowment, bulldozed its factories, arbitraged its productive labor, destroyed both family farms and the commercial infrastructure of main street, and trained its population to become overfed diabetic TV zombie “consumers” of other peoples’ productivity, paid for by “money” they haven’t earned.
There is a theory (see Nouriel Roubini’s blog) that a reform process will now ensue in the financial realm, new regulation and oversight of the same old familiar activities. This too, I’m afraid, will prove to be wishful thinking. The financial system will not be reformed until it lies in smoking wreckage, and when that “re-form” happens the armature of the re-organizing society will barely resemble the one that the previous burnt-down-house was designed to dwell in. Among other things, it will not support capital enterprise at anything like the scale that we became accustomed to lately. Globalism will be over. The great nations of the world will be scrambling desperately for the world’s remaining oil supplies. It will not be a friendly contest, and anyone who thinks that current trade relations and capital flows will continue despite that is liable to be disappointed. (Are you reading this Tom Friedman?)
Long before the mathematical projections of oil depletion play out, the oil markets themselves — and all the complex operations that they comprise, such as drilling and exploration, and the movement of tankers around the planet — will destabilize and seize up. We will no longer be any oil exporter’s “favored customer.” Many of the exporters will enjoy watching us suffer. Contrary to the political platitude-du-jour, the USA will never become “energy independent” in the way we currently imagine. Rather we’ll become energy independent by being deprived of imported oil, and we’ll be thrown back on our own dwindling supplies — which means that we’re not going to run our system of daily life the way it has been set up to run. When Americans can no longer run their cars on a whim, they will simply go apeshit and you can kiss normal politics goodbye.
The financial system that emerges from this cataclysm, and the economy it serves (which is supposed to be the master of its capital deployment “arm,” not its servant) will likely be modest to a degree that will shock and embarrass everyone currently connected with what we have lately called finance. If it even trades in paper, that paper will have to stand for something based in reality, either a productive activity or a genuine asset. It may take decades for this society to even regain the confidence necessary to operate such an elementary system — or it may not come back at all, at least as far as the horizon lies before us. That’s how bad the mischief and the damage has been.
It’s not hard to understand why the Bernankes, Paulsons, Lawrence Kudlows and other public representatives of capital keep pretending that everything is under control. On the other side of their pretenses lies disorder and hardship. One wonders, of course, what they really see in their private minds’ eyes. Do they actually believe that the statistics issued by their serveling agencies amount to a plausible picture of reality? Are they so lost in their fantasies of “management” that they think they’re controlling events?
My guess is that their credibility is spent. In the weeks ahead, nobody will know who or what to believe. We may even run out of questions to ask as we just all collectively stand there in a thrall of wonder and nausea, watching the nation’s financial house burn down.