Wednesday, December 3, 2008

No One Wants to Hear This

Jim Kunstler's depictions of a future of unknowns based on the fantasy governing of today seems about right to me, and he asks "Does Mr. O Know?" (emphasis marks and some editing were inserted - Ed.).

My own starting point . . . is the belief that in the years just ahead any sociopolitical entity organized at the giant scale will flounder - this includes everything from the federal government to global corporations to factory farms to centralized high schools to national retail chains. So even expecting Mr. Obama's government to act effectively may be asking too much in a situation that will require mostly local action. If Mr. O introduces any of these themes into the national discourse, the public and the media and the bloggers will all dump on him for failing to prop up the wild party that American life became in recent decades.
He has a mostly horrifying (but amazingly naturalistic) take on the zombification of the U.S. economy, which although initially upsetting, seems reasonable enough to at least start some discussions:
Though Citicorp is deemed too big to fail, it's hardly reassuring to know that it's been allowed to sink its fangs into the Mother Zombie that the U.S. Treasury has become and sucked out a multi-billion dollar dose of embalming fluid so it can go on pretending to be a bank for a while longer. I employ this somewhat clunky metaphor to point out that the U.S. Government is no more solvent than the financial zombies it is keeping on walking-dead support. And so this serial mummery of weekend bailout schemes is as much of a fraud and a swindle as the algorithm-derived-securities shenanigans that induced the disease of bank zombification in the first place. The main question it raises is whether, eventually, the creation of evermore zombified US dollars will exceed the amount of previously-created US dollars now vanishing into oblivion through compressive debt deflation. My guess, given the usual time-lag factor, is that the super-inflation snap-back will occur six to eighteen months from now. And the main result of all this will be our inability to buy the imported oil that comprises two-thirds of the oil we require to keep WalMart and Walt Disney World running. At some point, then, in the early months of the Obama administration, we'll learn that "change" is not a set of mere lifestyle choices but a wrenching transition away from all our familiar and comfortable habits into a stark and rigorous new economic landscape.
And on these other non-comfort-laden issues he thinks:
The economy-to-come is one of rigor and austerity. It is not the kind of thing that a nation of overfed clowns is used to. Do we even have a prayer of getting to it, or are we going to squander our dwindling resources on life support for something that is already dead? A case in point: the car industry. The Big Three, all functionally bankrupt, are now lined up for bail-outs from the treasury's bottomless checking account. Personally, I believe the age of Happy Motoring is over. Many Americans have already bought their last car - they just don't know it yet. The current low-ish price of oil is a total fake-out, having to do much more with asset-dumping in the paper markets than the true resource supply-demand equation. Most of the world (the media for sure) has ignored preliminary leaks from the International Energy Agency's (IEA) forthcoming report which forecasts global oil depletion to be 9.1 percent in 2009. This is a staggering figure, very likely to offset whatever slack we see in global demand from the worldwide economic crisis. In fact, the global oil markets are poised for the most severe dislocations ever seen, meaning it's a toss-up what happens first in the USA: a major leg back up in oil prices, or shortages, hoarding, and rationing. . . . Even the progressive factions of the public may be in for much more "change" than they bargained for. The global economy as we knew it is finished (despite British PM Gordon Brown's fatuous suggestion that we are ready to formalize it). The world is about to lose its "flatness" (sorry Tom Friedman) and get much rounder. For one thing, the racket of American "consumers" gobbling up the output of Asian factories in exchange for paper promises is over. For the moment, the Chinese are struggling with epic factory closures with the sudden prospect of a restive lumpenproletariet. The situation there is bound to get worse. Before long, these broke-and-hungry masses may actually challenge the present government. In the meantime, there's no telling what the (unelected) Chinese government might do either to keep itself in power, or genuinely defend its country's perceived economic interests. One thing is self-evident: we are not returning to the old racket of toys-for-treasury-bills. One thing China might do in economic self-defense is shed whatever US dollar-denominated paper is moldering in their vaults before it becomes valueless altogether. As global trade relations wither, and they will, the US will be thrust back on its own devices, at the same time that oil resources grow punishingly scarce. Mr. Obama will have to contend with the necessary radical reform of all the activities necessary for daily life here. Near the top of the list - invisible to most of the public so far - will be the question of how we produce the food we need. Industrial farming is done, just as suburbia is toast. Mr. Obama will have to apply plenty of ass-time to the first stages of negotiating this bottleneck. I don't even know what he can do policy-wise, though he can certainly make it plain to the public that we have to grow more of our food close to home and do it with fewer engines and fewer oil-based soil supplements. It is a problem of such surpassing difficulty that it was not even close to being in the election arena. . . . One thing we can certainly predict is that growing our food will require more human labor and attention - meaning there will be plenty of work for people currently losing their jobs at The Footlocker and Arby's, but it's far from certain whether they will be happy in their new vocations. We're going to have to resume making things in the USA again, too, probably at a more modest scale, and probably fewer things than we are used to. We have no idea yet how this is going to happen. Like agriculture, manufacturing culture may have to return, if at all, emergently, as individuals and communities see opportunity in advantages like proximity to water-power and water transport. My guess is that corporate enterprise as we have known it - at the continental and global scale - is done for. I would not bet on any of the Fortune 500 carrying on the manufacturing work of the future using the plants-and-equipment that are familiar to them. The manufacturing of the future may be more like cottage industry than Procter and Gamble. Yet, obviously, there will be tremendous efforts to prop up failing corporate enterprise and prevent natural bankruptcies from occurring. Similarly, the retail part of the economy. Many observers think that Wal-Mart and its clones are immune to the larger forces swirling around us. Just because many cash-strapped people are hunting for bargains at WalMart these days does not insure the survival of the Big Box model very far into the future. In fact, in every trend we can see - from the oil markets to events in China to the impoverishment of the US working class to the coming crisis in truck transport - you can easily discern fatal weaknesses in this model. Local retail (and its support structures) is coming back. We just don't know how, yet, and we don't know how much capital and effort will be squandered trying to rescue WalMart, when the time comes. But the imperative re-scaling of commerce in America also represents huge opportunities for young people to get into their own businesses.
I wanted to begin discussion of the Mumbai "massacre" implications today, but somehow Jim always trumps those cards. Suzan ______________________________

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