Disarray by James Howard Kunstler

Feb 21, 2008  DISARRAY  by James Howard Kunstler

The dark tunnel that the U.S. economy has entered began to look more and more like a black hole recently, sucking in lives, fortunes, and prospects behind a Potemkin facade of orderly retreat put up by anyone in authority with a story to tell or an interest to protect – Fed chairman Bernanke, CNBC, The New York Times , the Bank of America… Events are now moving ahead of anything that personalities can do to control them.

The “housing bubble” implosion is broadly misunderstood. It’s not just the collapse of a market for a particular kind of commodity, it’s the end of the suburban pattern itself, the way of life it represents, and the entire economy connected with it. It’s the crack up of the system that America has invested most of its wealth in since 1950. It’s perhaps most tragic that the mis-investments only accelerated as the system reached its end, but it seems to be nature’s way that waves crest just before they break.

This wave is breaking into a sea-wall of disbelief. Nobody gets it. The psychological investment in what we think of as American reality is too great. The mainstream media doesn’t get it, and they can’t report it coherently. None of the candidates for president has begun to articulate an understanding of what we face: the suburban living arrangement is an experiment that has entered failure mode.

I maintain that all the “players” – from the bankers to the politicians to the editors to the ordinary citizens – will continue to not get it as the disarray accelerates and families and communities are blown apart by economic loss. Instead of beginning the tough process of making new arrangements for everyday life, we’ll take up a campaign to sustain the unsustainable old way of life at all costs.

A reader sent me a passel of recent clippings last week from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution . It contained one story after another about the perceived need to build more highways in order to maintain “economic growth” (and incidentally about the “foolishness” of public transit). I understood that to mean the need to keep the suburban development system going, since that has been the real main source of the Sunbelt’s prosperity the past 60-odd years. They cannot imagine an economy that is based on anything besides new subdivisions, freeway extensions, new car sales, and NASCAR spectacles. The Sunbelt, therefore, will be ground-zero for all the disappointment emanating from this cultural disaster, and probably also ground-zero for the political mischief that will ensue from lost fortunes and crushed hopes.

From time-to-time, I feel it’s necessary to remind readers what we can actually do in the face of this long emergency. Voters and candidates in the primary season have been hollering about “change” but I’m afraid the dirty secret of this campaign is that the American public doesn’t want to change its behavior at all. What it really wants is someone to promise them they can keep on doing what they’re used to doing: buying more stuff they can’t afford, eating more bad food that will kill them, and driving more miles than circumstances will allow.

Here’s what we better start doing.

Stop all highway-building altogether. Instead, direct public money into repairing railroad rights-of-way. Put together public-private partnerships for running passenger rail between American cities and towns in between. If Amtrak is unacceptable, get rid of it and set up a new management system. At the same time, begin planning comprehensive regional light-rail and streetcar operations.

End subsidies to agribusiness and instead direct dollar support to small-scale farmers, using the existing regional networks of organic farming associations to target the aid. (This includes ending subsidies for the ethanol program.)

Begin planning and construction of waterfront and harbor facilities for commerce: piers, warehouses, ship-and-boatyards, and accommodations for sailors. This is especially important along the Ohio-Mississippi system and the Great Lakes.

In cities and towns, change regulations that mandate the accommodation of cars. Direct all new development to the finest grain, scaled to walkability. This essentially means making the individual building lot the basic increment of redevelopment, not multi-acre “projects.” Get rid of any parking requirements for property development. Institute “locational taxation” based on proximity to the center of town and not on the size, character, or putative value of the building itself. Put in effect a ban on buildings in excess of seven stories. Begin planning for district or neighborhood heating installations and solar, wind, and hydro-electric generation wherever possible on a small-scale network basis.

We’d better begin a public debate about whether it is feasible or desirable to construct any new nuclear power plants. If there are good reasons to go forward with nuclear, and a consensus about the risks and benefits, we need to establish it quickly. There may be no other way to keep the lights on in America after 2020.

We need to prepare for the end of the global economic relations that have characterized the final blow-off of the cheap energy era. The world is about to become wider again as nations get desperate over energy resources. This desperation is certain to generate conflict. We’ll have to make things in this country again, or we won’t have the most rudimentary household products.

We’d better prepare psychologically to downscale all institutions, including government, schools and colleges, corporations, and hospitals. All the centralizing tendencies and gigantification of the past half-century will have to be reversed. Government will be starved for revenue and impotent at the higher scale. The centralized high schools all over the nation will prove to be our most frustrating mis-investment. We will probably have to replace them with some form of home-schooling that is allowed to aggregate into neighborhood units. A lot of colleges, public and private, will fail as higher ed ceases to be a “consumer” activity. Corporations scaled to operate globally are not going to make it. This includes probably all national chain “big box” operations. It will have to be replaced by small local and regional business. We’ll have to reopen many of the small town hospitals that were shuttered in recent years, and open many new local clinic-style health-care operations as part of the greater reform of American medicine.

Take a time-out from legal immigration and get serious about enforcing the laws about illegal immigration. Stop lying to ourselves and stop using semantic ruses like calling illegal immigrants “undocumented.

Prepare psychologically for the destruction of a lot of fictitious “wealth” – and allow instruments and institutions based on fictitious wealth to fail, instead of attempting to keep them propped up on credit life-support. Like any other thing in our national life, finance has to return to a scale that is consistent with our circumstances – i.e., what reality will allow. That process is underway, anyway, whether the public is prepared for it or not. We will soon hear the sound of banks crashing all over the place. Get out of their way, if you can.

*** Prepare psychologically for a sociopolitical climate of anger, grievance, and resentment. A lot of individual citizens will find themselves short of resources in the years ahead. They will be very ticked off and seek to scapegoat and punish others. The United States is one of the few nations on earth that did not undergo a sociopolitical convulsion in the past hundred years. But despite what we tell ourselves about our specialness, we’re not immune to the forces that have driven other societies to extremes. The rise of the Nazis, the Soviet terror, the “cultural revolution,” the holocausts and genocides – these are all things that can happen to any people driven to desperation. ****


May 5, 2008 The Risk Economy

As the West’s industrial regime sputters toward a cheap-energy-crackup conclusion, there have been attempts to recast what our economy is actually about, how to account for whatever wealth we manage to produce, and project what our society will actually be organized to do in the years ahead.

For a while in the 1990s, the idea was a “service economy,” kind of like the old fable of the town whose inhabitants made a living by taking in each other’s laundry — only in our case it was selling hamburgers to tourists on vacation from their jobs making hamburgers elsewhere, or something like that.

Then came the idea of the “information economy” in which making things of value would no longer matter, only the processing and deployment of information (sometimes misidentified as “knowledge”). This model seemed to suggest a yin-yang of software engineers who made up games like “Grand Theft Auto” serving the opposite cohort of people who bought and played the game. If nothing else, it certainly explained how lifetimes could be frittered away on stupid activities.

That illusion yielded to the housing bubble economy, which actually did produce a lot of things, but not necessarily of value — for instance, houses made of particle board and vinyl 38 miles outside of Sacramento. It was a tragic and manifold waste of resources, as well as an insult to the landscape. But the darker side of the housing bubble lay in the world of finance, where a vast empire of swindles was constructed to support the Potemkin facade of production homebuilding.

Now we are in a strange period when those swindles are unwinding. The people who run the finance sector — the Wall Street investment banks, hedge funds and ratings agencies, the Federal Reserve, and the US Dept of the Treasury — in desperately trying to prevent the unwind, have rapidly ramped up another new economy based entirely on the buying and selling of risk. Risk, as a pure abstraction unconnected to any real capital activity, is all that’s left to buy and sell after all other plausibly practical vehicles for finance have failed.

While a lack of transparency in the individual risk vehicles has been an object of complaint over the past year, the system as whole is transparently absurd. The system is also abstruse enough to prevent most mortals (including many employed in the system) from understanding its operations. But the general public and the news media are virtually helpless to intervene in this last gasp racket, so the probability increases that it will do tremendous damage to whatever remains of the US economy. One feature of the risk economy is the Federal Reserve’s new willingness to absorb any sort of crap collateral in exchange for massive cheap loans to insolvent companies and institutions. The Fed has, in effect, made itself the world’s largest financial shit-magnet. It has already taken in a few hundred billion in securities based on non-performing real estate loans, and has now opened the window to securities based on non-performing credit card debt, car loans, and other miscellaneous IOUs still drifting un-hedged in the banking ether.

It’s a mark of our collective desperation to avoid the consequences of so much reckless behavior that no credible authorities have stepped up to denounce this racket — no Fed governor, no politician of standing (including the candidates for president), no newspaper-of-record. The Attorney-general of New York, Andrew Cuomo, may be quietly cooking up some cases in the deep background, but the SEC and the federal banking regulators hung up their “out-to-lunch” signs on this long ago.

Meanwhile, the basic situation is this: the world is awash with bad investment paper. The standard of living in the US can’t be supported on debt anymore. The people of the US don’t produce enough real value to service their debts. Institutions can no longer be supported on debt gone bad. Something’s got to give — meaning something has to bring the US standard of living down to a level consistent with our declining actual wealth.

Everything else going on right now is a dodge. The Fed maneuvers, the “coordinated actions” of the western central banks, the postponements of default, the non-disclosure of contents in bank portfolios, the pretense that risk alone is a kind of fungible resource that can be endlessly traded to generate fees — all this fucking nonsense will only make the eventual unwinding much worse.

Personally, I doubt that it can go on more than a few more months. The velocity of everything is going up past the “red line” where things really fly apart. The increased velocity of non-performing mortgages and deadbeat credit card accounts is one thing that can’t be hidden or escaped. America will feel and see very vividly when the repossession teams rush families from their homes, when the pickup truck is taken away, and when the pink slip appears in the pay envelope. Meanwhile all the higher-end banking shenanigans will only debase the dollar and make it more difficult for people already in distress to buy gasoline and food.

If the bankers and treasury officials collude to prop up one more failing big bank a la Bear Stearns, the political fallout for Wall Street could be lethal. In any case, I think we will have a way different sense of ourselves as a society by the time the election comes.

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