Below is the section of How to Time Collapses
1. Find out when the collapse clock starts running by looking for a significant drop in energy consumption
2. Calculate how long the clock is going to run by dividing the total wealth of the citizenry by the economic shortfall of the shrinking economy
For any industrial economy the collapse clock starts running as soon as the consumption of fossil hydrocarbons starts dropping appreciably. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether this has already happened if the country in question is still a major hydrocarbon producer. Gross production numbers can still be holding steady or even seem to go up a bit, but once you subtract all the energy that is being expended on energy production itself, and on the unprofitable mitigation of its many undesirable consequences, you might be able see a decline sooner rather than later. Notably, the net energy yield, or EROEI, is very low for all the newer unconventional sources that have been trumpeted as panaceas in recent years, such as ones that require hydrofracturing and drilling in deep water, tar sands and so on. (The so-called “renewables,” such as wind, solar and biofuels, are an even bigger joke, because all of them with the exception of hydroelectric plants have net energy that is too low to sustain an industrial economy, plus they all depend on technologies that are “nonrenewable” unless the country maintains a vast industrial base which happens to run on fossil fuels.) And so the drop in net energy consumption is clear for Italy, which produces 7% of the oil it consumes and imports the rest, whereas the picture is somewhat less clear for the US, which still manages to supply around a third of its oil.
Since all industrial economies literally run on fossil fuels, lower energy consumption immediately translates into a lower level of economic activity and a shrinking economy. The gap between the expectations of economic growth that are dialed into all of the financial arrangements, and the reality of economic decline driven by lower energy availability, has to be plugged with the population’s savings. There are a number of ways of expropriating wealth, generally proceeding from various kinds of stealth taxation measures, to more overt measures, to outright expropriation. Taking the US as the example (since I am most familiar with it) the expropriation cascade is proceeding as follows:
1. Central bank policy of zeroing out of interest rates on savings combined with massive money-printing. This forces money into speculative markets (stocks, real estate, etc.) creating huge financial bubbles; when these bubbles pop, savings are said to be destroyed, but in reality that money has already been spent by the government or used to fill the private coffers of those closely associated with the government.
2. Government policy of canceling retirements or short-changing retirees. The federal government has worked hard to make its official measure of inflation all but meaningless so that it can justify its policy of making cost of living adjustments to social security payments that are far less than the the real increases in the cost of living. Another federal expropriation scheme is via guaranteed student loans, which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and which have created an entire class of indentured servants. At the more local level, state and municipal governments are curtailing or canceling retirement programs by virtue of going bankrupt.
3. Ever more onerous reporting requirements for financial transactions, especially for those who try to leave the country and expatriate their savings. All foreign bank accounts must now be reported, and people who work abroad are now forced to file voluminous annual reports that cost thousands of dollars to prepare. Those who decide to repudiate their US citizenship are made to pay a hefty exit tax. Nevertheless, record numbers of US citizens have been doing just that. Just having a US passport often makes it impossible to set up accounts in foreign financial institutions, which have little desire to comply with US demands for financial disclosure.
These are the measures that are already in place. Looking at what’s been tried before, here and elsewhere, we can see what other measures are in the works. Among them:
1. So-called “bail-ins” where insolvent financial institutions are rescued by confiscating depositor funds. We can expect the script to be similar to what happened in Cyprus: politically connected depositors get word ahead of time and yank out their money forthwith; everybody else gets shorn.
2. Limits on bank withdrawals. You might still “have” money in the bank, but that’s the only place you can “have” it. The semantics of the verb “to have” can be quite tricky, you see…
3. Ever-increasing taxes on property resulting in property confiscation. It works like this: government prints money and hands it out to its friends; its friends use it to temporarily bid up property values; property taxes go up to a point where the property owners can’t pay them; owners lose their properties. A staggering 63% of real estate purchases in Florida last December were cash purchases.
4. Various kinds of sudden, new, super-complex regulations, noncompliance with which results in very large fines. In turn, nonpayment of these fines results in forfeiture of assets. The US has some very curious laws according to which inanimate objects such as cars, boats and houses can be charged with a crime, seized and auctioned off. We can expect lots more of such property grabs in the future.
5. Gold confiscation, which happened once in the US already, so there is a precedent for it. Yes, I know that this will make a number of people upset, but I am yet to hear a convincing argument for why the US government would not resort to gold confiscation when that turns out to be one of the few remaining cards it can play.
This list is by no means comprehensive. If you feel that I have missed something major, please submit a comment, and I will consider it for inclusion.
Now, it would be nice if all of these measures worked like clockwork, always producing the right amount of wealth confiscation to levitate the government, and the financial scheme on which it is based, for a little while longer. Alas, as with most things, something is bound to go wrong at some point, most likely when you least expect it. And it seems like a dead certainty that something will in fact go wrong well before every last American citizen is relieved of every bit of their accumulated wealth and is living peacefully in a roadside ditch, wearing an attractive loincloth and a stylish mudpack for a hat, quietly perfecting a nouvelle cuisine that features snails au jus and dandelion salad au chaume. Maybe you can imagine it, but I can’t. Beyond a certain point, I can only imagine reports of widespread “public disturbances” followed by “breakdown of law and order.”
Still, I hope that this framework will allow us to set an upper bound for how long collapse can be deferred for any given country. Once hydrocarbon consumption drops appreciably, the clock starts running. Then it is possible to estimate how long the clock can theoretically run by dividing the remaining net worth of the population by the size of the hole in the economy created by falling energy consumption.
But after that things get messy. Some countries will hollow themselves out quite peaceably, and go softly into the night, while others will explode and fast-forward though the financial-commercial-political collapse sequence. And so perhaps the most useful thing to know is whether the collapse clock is already running for any given country, because if it is already running, then it becomes a fool’s game to wait around for the inevitable outcome.
One reasonable approach is to get another passport and quietly relocate to another country. It is important that this country be one for which the collapse clock is not running and won’t be for a long time yet. Ideally this would be a financially secure, politically stable, energy independent, militarily invincible, underpopulated, non-extradition country which will be among the last to be severely disrupted by climate change and where you could have lunch with Edward Snowden. But this approach doesn’t appeal to everyone, and I understand that.
And so another approach is to adapt to what’s coming while remaining in the US, or in any other country for which the collapse clock is running, by making yourself, and your wealth, should you have any, illegible. Here is a very nice article by one smart cookie by the name of Venkatesh Rao on the concept of illegibility. And here is his very nice primer on being an illegible person. This kind of illegibility has nothing to do with bad handwriting; it is about hiding in plain sight. Please read these as homework, because I will have more to say on this topic in the near future. And I would love to see a list of countries for which the collapse clock is running, along with first-order estimates for how long it could possibly run for each one, based on their population’s net worth and the country’s economic shortfall. But since this post has just gone over 3000 words, I am leaving this as an exercise for the reader.