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2017: When The Wheels Finally Come Off, Pt. 1 of 7

Kunstler  |  Howard Kuntsler

The American people have been punked by their own government and their central bank, the Federal Reserve, for years and the jig is now up.

In 2017 both will lose their authority and legitimacy, a very grave matter for the survival of this republic.

“There is no other endeavor in which men and women of enormous intellectual power have shown total disregard for higher-order reasoning than monetary policy.”  -David Collum

American Notes

Apart from all the ill-feeling about the election, one constant ‘out there’ since November 8 is the Ayn Randian rapture that infects the money scene. Wall Street and big business believe that the country has passed through a magic portal into a new age of heroic businessmen-warriors (Trump, Rex T, Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, et. al.) who will go forth creating untold wealth from super-savvy deal-making that un-does all the self-defeating malarkey of the detested Deep State technocratic regulation regime of recent years. The main signs in the sky, they say, are the virile near-penetration of the Dow Jones 20,000-point maidenhead and the rocket ride of Ole King Dollar to supremacy of the global currency-space.

I hate to pound sleet on this manic parade, but, to put it gently, mob psychology is outrunning both experience and reality. Let’s offer a few hypotheses regarding this supposed coming Trumptopian nirvana.

The current narrative weaves an expectation that manufacturing industry will return to the USA complete with all the 1962-vintage societal benefits of great-paying blue collar jobs, plus an orgy of infrastructure-building. I think both ideas are flawed, even allowing for good intentions. For one thing, most of the factories are either standing in ruin or scraped off the landscape. So, it’s not like we’re going to reactivate some mothballed sleeping giant of productive capacity. New state-of-the-art factories would require an Everest of private capital investment that is simply impossible to manifest in a system that is already leveraged up to its eyeballs. Even if we tried to accomplish it via some kind of main force government central planning and financing — going full-Soviet — there is no conceivable way to raise (borrow) the “money” without altogether destroying the value of our money (inflation), and the banking system with it.

If by some magic any new industrial capacity were built, much of the work in it would be performed by robotics, not brawny men in blue shirts, and certainly not at the equivalent of the old United Auto Workers $35-an-hour assembly line wage. We have not faced the fact that the manufacturing fiesta based on fossil fuels was a one-time thing due to special historical circumstances and will not be repeated. The future of manufacturing in America is frighteningly modest. We’ll actually be lucky if we can make a few vital necessities by means of hydro-electric or direct water power, and that will be about the extent of it. Some of you may recognize this as the World Made By Hand scenario. I’ll stick by that.

Similarly for “infrastructure” spending touted by the forces of Trump as the coming panacea for economic malaise. I suspect most people assume this means a trillion-dollar stimulus spend on highways and their accessories. Well, that also assumes that we expect another fifty years of Happy Motoring and suburban living. Fuggeddabowdit. We’re in the twilight of motoring anyway you cut it, despite all the chatter about electric cars and “driverless” cars. We won’t have the electric capacity to switch over the Happy Motoring fleet from gasoline. The oil industry itself is already headed for collapse on its sinking energy-return-on-investment. And our problems with money and debt are so severe that the motoring paradigm is more prone to fail on the basis of car loan scarcity and unworthy borrowers before the fueling issues even kick in. Every year, fewer Americans can afford to buy any kind of car — the way they’re used to buying them, on installment loans. The industry has gone the limit to help them — seven-year loans for used cars! — but they have no more room to maneuver. The car financing system is broken. Bear in mind the original suburbanization of America back in the 20th century — along with its accessory automobiles — must be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. So, a rebuild of all this stuff would represent more and possibly even greater malinvestment. We could have applied our post-WW2 treasure to building beautiful walkable towns and cities with some capacity for adaptive re-use, but we blew it in order to enjoy life in a one-time demolition derby. Life is tragic. Societies make poor choices sometimes, and then there are consequences.

We also might have been in better shape now if, beginning twenty years ago, we began a major rebuild of our railway infrastructure. But we blew that off, too, and shortly it will be very difficult to get around this geographically large country by any mechanical means. It may be too late now to do anything about that for the financing reasons already touched on — and which I will elaborate on next. The bottom line is that President Donald Trump will be overwhelmed by a sea of financial troubles from the very get-go, and here’s why.

Designated Bag-Holder

The American people have been punked by their own government and their central bank, the Federal Reserve, for years and the jig is now up. In 2017 both will lose their authority and legitimacy, a very grave matter for the survival of this republic.

Insiders surely have seen this coming for a long time. The people running this so-called Deep State of overblown and overgrown institutions probably acted at first with the good intentions of keeping the national lifestyle afloat. But in the end (now approaching) they stooped to too much duplicity and deceit in the desperate attempt to not just preserve the system, but to protect their own reputations and personal perquisites. And now there ought to be some question with the election of 2016 that they have engineered all of this system fragility to blow up on Mr. Trump’s watch, so they can blame him for it. It was going to blow up anyway. But had Hillary Clinton won the election, at least the right gang would have had to take the blame — the people in charge for the past twenty years. Instead, Donald Trump has been elected Designated Bag-Holder.

About That “Big Fat Ugly Bubble” and its Consequences

Part 1: History Lesson

The USA ran out of growth capacity around the turn of the millennium because we ran out of affordable energy to run our techno-industrial economy. It was hard to see this with seemingly plenty of oil available. And, of course, the computer tech fiesta was blossoming, but for all that glitzy stuff to attract dwindling real capital, other old stuff had to go, and did go, and when all was said and done the computers did not generate much wealth or social value. In fact, the diminishing returns and blowback of computer tech were arguably more damaging than beneficial to society and its economy. Look at where the middle class is today. Computer tech gave the magical appearance of growth while actually undermining it.

By affordable energy I mean energy with a greater-than 30-to-one energy-return-on-investment, which is the ratio you need for the kind of life we lead. That’s what the now-ridiculed Peak Oil story was really about: not running out of oil, but not getting enough bang for our bucks pulling the remaining oil out of the earth to maintain our standard of living. I’ll return to this issue in more detail later. But that was what provoked America’s 21st century economic malaise. Everything we’ve done in finance since then has been an attempt to compensate for our fundamental problem with debt — borrowing from the future to maintain our current (unaffordable) standard of living. Our debt has grown ever larger and faster each year, and our methods for managing it have become more desperate and dishonest as that occurred.

The culprit at the center is America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, which is actually not a government agency as it seems, but a consortium of the nation’s biggest private banks, lately known as Too-Big-To-Fail. The Fed was created in 1913, when the complexities of capital finance were multiplying in step with the complexities of industrial production, which, remember, was a new and evolving phenomenon of human history. Mankind had no prior experience with industrialism. We discovered toward the end of the 19th century — decades of unprecedented industrial growth — that the system’s dynamic produced booms accompanied by very destructive busts. The operations of banking usually outran the cycles of trade, industry, and war that were coloring evolving Modernity. So the Fed was created to smooth out these cycles. It had two basic mandates for this: acting as the lender of last resort between banks during financial panics so that some money would always be available in an emergency; and stabilizing the money supply and prices in the system. The Fed failed spectacularly to smooth out the cycles of boom and bust and to maintain the value of the dollar over time.

Sixteen years after the Fed’s creation, America entered its worst economic downturn ever, the Great Depression, which was only mitigated by the colossal abnormality of World War Two. America emerged from that episode as the last industrial society standing amid everyone else’s smoldering ruins. That gave us an extraordinary advantage in world trade lasting roughly thirty years. That high tide of the era of seeming “normality” — the 1950s and 60s, which the Trumpian-minded might recall as “great” — started unraveling in the 1970s, which was not coincidentally the moment of America’s all-time oil production peak.

In 1977, the Fed was given a third mission of promoting maximum employment with a trick-bag of tools for manipulating the money supply and credit creation that have proven to be fatally mischievous. This new task elevated Fed officials, and especially its chairperson, to the status of viziers — magicians using occult mathematical models and formulas — to cast spells capable of controlling the macro economy the way wizards are thought to control external reality. Their pretenses seemed to work for reasons unrelated to the spells they were learning to cast.

It is still largely unrecognized that America recovered from the financial disorder of the 1970s not because of the charms of “Reaganomics” but for the simple reason that the last giant finds of oil with greater than 30-to-one energy-return-on-investment came on line in the 1980s: Alaska’s North Slope, Britain and Norway’s North Sea fields, and Siberia. That allowed the USA and the West generally to extend the techno-industrial fiesta another twenty years. As that bounty tapered down around the year 2000, the system wobbled again and the viziers of the Fed ramped up their magical operations, led by the Grand Vizier (or “Maestro”) Alan Greenspan, who worked the control rods of interest rates as though the financial system were a great nuclear powered pipe organ that could be revved up and tamped down by a wondrous Fed control panel. This period of Fed spell-casting was characterized by ever more systemically complex finance, growing systemic fragility, pervasive institutionalized accounting fraud, and ever-greater bubbles and busts. Deregulation, especially the 1998 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932, sealed America’s financial fate.

Debt was the meat-and-potatoes of the Fed’s wizardry, but the “secret sauce” of Fed magic was fraud, in the form of market interventions, manipulations, regulatory negligence, and just plain systematic lying about the numbers that defined the economy. It amounted to nationalized financial racketeering. Under the consecutive Grand Vizierships of Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, control fraud (using official authority to cover up misconduct) was perfected by banking executives, eventuating in the mortgage securities fiasco of 2008, which took down the housing market and the economy. (That housing market, by the way, was made up mainly of suburban houses, the sine qua non of the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.)

Of course, nobody paid a criminal penalty for any of this misconduct besides the maverick Ponzi artist Bernie Madoff, and a few other small fish. The regulators looked the other way, on orders from their bosses. Unlike the earlier Savings and Loan bank crisis of the late 1980s, none of the leading bank officer perps went to jail. The damage of the 2008 crash was epic and never repaired, only papered over with more debt, more deceit, and more racketeering.

The supposed remedy, the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, was a cover for continued pervasive fraud and the institutional “capture” of government by the banking industry and its handmaidens, really a fascist melding of banking and government, a swindle machine in which anything goes and nothing matters. The frauds have only been rechanneled since 2008 into college loans, car loans, corporate stock buyback monkey business, currency arbitrage shenanigans, private equity asset-stripping, and the gigantic black box of derivatives trading.

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