Facing the Truth

When I have written about our present human crisis, I have often made the point that if we humans are to have a future, we must begin by facing the truth. This morning I offer three recent essays by a Paul Revere of our time.

James Howard Kunstler

Burning Down the House

     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.

Shoes Dropping

      The fall of Britain’s Northern Rock bank may be the first dropped shoe in a chorus line of big banks tap-dancing into oblivion. The British government’s move yesterday to nationalize the insolvent mortgage lender’s remaining operations leaves shareholders holding an empty bag. Their only resort now will be to call their lawyers. What we may be witnessing, in a movement that will surely spread to the US, is a changing of the guard at the top of the financial food-chain between bankers and lawyers.

Shoes may have begun to drop in the US last week with Citigroup halting redemptions for its $500-million CSO mini hedge fund—half a billion dollars being something less than walking-around-money in the Hamptons these days. Halting redemptions means that investors in the fund cannot withdraw their money—the same as going to the bank and being told your account is frozen. Hedge funds can play rough with their investors because they are unregulated. The reason they remain unregulated is the presumption that anybody rich enough to “play” in a hedge fund can afford to lose (or be swindled) with no protection on the sidelines from government busybodies. What’s more, the hedge fund managers do not have to make any of their operations open to public view, so that neither the investors nor any regulating authority knows what they are actually doing.

What the big banks who run many hedge funds are doing is going broke. They are pretending to be solvent by borrowing money from the Federal Reserve, the nation’s alleged superbank. But borrowed money is not capital, i.e. surplus wealth wholly owned. Borrowed money is an obligation, a liability, a negative on the balance sheet. You can’t have an entire financial system based on nothing more than a giant daisy-chain of liabilities. Somewhere there has to be a “reserve” of assets, items of value owned by somebody.

Through most of modern times, assets have been denoted by cash money. A given bank will hold in “reserve” say $10 billion in money that is not owed to anybody, allowing them to do things like pay depositors who show up at the window needing money for groceries. Up until a few decades ago, nations held an ultimate reserve of actual gold in a vault (Fort Knox, Kentucky, in the case of the USA) and the physical possession of this gold was said to “back up” the value of the certificates that circulated as a “medium-of-exchange” or currency.

But that system was considered too awkward and “reserves” were then denoted in just currencies themselves, or certificates that represented the existence of currencies held elsewhere, or pixels on a screen representing the movement of alleged piles of currency from one place to another, or the intention to move a notional pile of currency to a theoretical destination, and then that became an algorithm purporting to represent the future arrival of a notional pile of money at theoretical destination to-be-named-later, and so on…. And after another while, the nature of money became so detached from anything real, so abstract, that its very existence became hypothetical. Even this “worked” for a while, in terms of the managers of this money being able to “cream” substantial amounts of this hypothetical money off the top of their notional operations and translate that hypothetical cream into Tribeca lofts, Gulfstream jets, and other real luxuries.

The rest of the economic food chain—and the social order that represented it—got stripped of remaining asset value (and social value) until they had nothing left to trade with except debt, in one form or another, and this phase of the game turned out to have a short lifetime when the the only debts remaining to be monetized were the contracts on houses occupied by people with no hope of ever meeting their obligations—and then the whole sorry racket started to go up in a vapor.

This is roughly where we are, and where the banks stand today. They are pretending to have money and desperately cadging loans from all comers to keep appearances up, but the loans can’t come in fast enough. The appearance of confidence is crucial (as it is, of course, in any “con” game) to keep the investors (depositors) at bay. If a bunch of investors (depositors) all got nervous about the solvency of a given bank, they might try to slip in there during business hours and withdraw or redeem their “money” and perhaps translate it into items of value like gold coins, bottles of vodka, or cases of 9 millimeter pistol ammunition. And if enough of this bunch showed up at the same time, we would see a phenomenon called a “run” on a bank. And after that started at one bank, the thing Franklin Roosevelt called “fear itself” could easily spread to depositors in other banks pretending to be okay… and that would be the magic moment that the USA discovered it was no longer a rich nation.

That would be a very rude awakening. The whole world would know about it in about thirty seconds, and the rest of the world would be in a lot of trouble, too, since so much of its notional wealth is represented by piles of US dollars (or certificates denoting them). Then what you could see is a run by other nations (investor-depositors) on the United States of America as a whole, or an awkward global receivership process, in which all remaining assets were stripped—including maybe even some of those Tribeca lofts and Gulfstream jets.

Of course, the rest of the world would have a hard time getting any of this stuff out, or fencing it off at a discount. Rather, they’d probably just eat their losses and quarantine themselves off from the world’s new financial-and-economic leper. They’d stop sending us Toyota Highlanders, plastic salad shooters, and, oh yes, oil. We’d be left with a lot of empty big box stores, vacant highways, and houses inconveniently deployed too far from any place of utility. One thing we’d have plenty of, though, is home-grown pissed-off people. Some of them may even be lawyers.

Still Pretending

     The maneuvers that the big banks are making nowadays, along with their enablers at the Federal Reserve and elsewhere in Washington, really amount to little more than the old Polish blanket joke—in which (excuse my concision) the proverbial Polack wants to make his blanket longer, so he scissors twelve inches off the top and sews it onto the bottom. Only in this case, the banks are shearing x-billions of losses off the top of their blankets and re-attaching x-billions of new debt onto the bottom. This new debt, of course, goes to cover the old losses and only represents further losses-to-be-reported-later, since the banks are basically insolvent. Borrowing more money when you’re broke doesn’t make you less insolvent.

The banks can probably keep this gag running a little longer, but not without consequences. My guess is that it spins out of control in March sometime when some more hedge funds blow up and at least one big bank, perhaps Citi, rolls belly up like a harpooned whale. The game is really over, and all the playerz know it. The consequence of continuing to pretend the meta-fiasco of Ponzi endgame is fixable will be an even more shattering depression than the one we’re already in for.

We are a much poorer nation than we thought we were and the reality is just too hard to face. Nobody from the most august banker (Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson) to the lowliest wanker (the WalMart inventory clerk who “bought” a house outside Phoenix with a no-money-down, payment-option, adjustable rate mortgage) can believe that this is happening. The candidates for president are pretty much assuming that vast financial resources will exist to be deployed against a range of problems. Everybody is going to be hugely disappointed.

When you introduce perversities into an economic system, they invariably end up expressing themselves as distortions. The economy that evolved the past two decades, driven by the perverse securitization of wishes and frauds, will now express itself in a stark cratering of American living standards. Incomes and jobs will vanish, massive quantities of stuff will collect dust on the WalMart shelves, the fragile infrastructures of daily life will go to shit, and there will be political hell to pay. Every attempt to avoid a straight-up workout of our massive losses, will represent another layer of perversity and more consequent destructive distortions.

I feel sorry for the next president. Even as he takes his oath of office, the nation will be flying apart like a seized-up engine. Since the fiasco in finance is happening in lock-step with Peak Oil (and very likely because of it at a fundamental level) we can expect one of the distortions to take the form of oil shortages. These shortages will come not just from demand bottlenecks in a stressed-out world oil allocation system, but because exporting nations will start demanding payment in Euros or something besides the depreciating currency that reflects our disintegration, and we’ll have a problem coming up with payments that amount to at least fifty percent more than we’re used to shelling out.

Once the US gets into serious difficulties with our oil supplies. every other sector of the economy wobbles, including especially the food-growing sector, which cannot function without copious amounts of diesel fuel and hydrocarbon-based soil “inputs.” Americans will go hungry, and not just the “underclasses.”

Along in this process somewhere, there is huge potential for armed conflict with other nations. If the unraveling gets traction while George W. Bush remains in charge, the US may answer bellicosity from oil-exporting nations, or energy-hungry rivals, with truculence of our own. Things can get out of control very fast in such a situation. Nations that were happily selling us salad shooters six months earlier may be targeting our naval vessels with a different sort of shooter, say a Sunburn missile. In any case, we will be acting with a bankrupt, exhausted, and over-extended military, and the best case outcome would leave us merely isolated and marooned geopolitically on our own continent, with dwindling energy and mineral resources and an angry, demoralized population.

This time around we have more to fear than fear itself. The banking executives, government officials, and candidates for president are not doing the nation a service by concealing and ignoring our losses. Finance, as the driver of an economy, is finished, but the deployment of capital is still an indispensable arm of a real economy. Sooner or later we’ll get back to money that stands for something and banks that function as credible repositories of wealth. But we haven’t even started down the path to that place, and the longer we pretend that we don’t have to go there, the worse the journey will be.

February 25, 2008 in Commentary on Current Events ¦ ¦ Comments (153)

Copyright 2008 James Howard Kunstler

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