Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Peak Money

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (November 12 2007)

The multi-dimensional meltdown underway in the finance sector illustrates perfectly how the complex systems we depend on start to wobble and fail as soon as peak oil establishes itself as a fact in the public imagination. Mainly what it shows is that we don't have to run out of oil - or even come close to that - before the trouble starts. Just going over the peak and heading down the slippery slope of depletion is enough. Peak oil, it turns out, is also peak money. Or should we say, peak "money?"

First of all, what is finance exactly? I'd bet that a lot of people these days don't know, including many working in the financial "industry", as it has taken to calling itself. Finance, until very recently, was the means by which investment was raised for useful economic activities and productive ventures - in other words, the deployment of capital, which is to say accumulated wealth. Historically, this accumulated wealth was pretty meager. There wasn't a whole lot to deploy and the deployment was controlled by a tiny handful of people statistically greater only than the number of Martians in the general population. They operated as families or clans, and everybody knew who they were: the Medici, the Rothschilds. Even the Roman Empire was a kind of financial Flintstones operation compared to what we see on CNBC these days. Not having the printing press, the Romans had to inflate their currency the old-fashioned way, by adding base metals to their gold coins.

Finance in the 200-odd-year-long industrial era evolved step-by-step with the steady incremental rise of available cheap energy. More to the point, the instruments associated with finance evolved in complexity with that rise in energy. It was only about two-hundred years ago, in fact, that circulating banknotes or paper currencies evolved out of much cruder certificates that were little more than IOUs. Once printed paper banknotes became established, and institutions created to regulate them, the invention of more abstract certificates became possible and we began to get things like stocks and bonds, traded publicly in bourses or exchanges, which represented amounts of money invested or loaned, but were not themselves "money".

Much of this innovation occurred during the rise of the coal-powered economy of the 19th century. It accelerated with the oil-and-gas economy of the 20th century, up into the present time. So, for about 150 years - or roughly since the end of the American Civil War - we've had a certain kind of regularized finance that enjoyed continual refinement. Even in the face of cyclical traumas, like the Great Depression, currencies, stocks, and bonds retained their legitimacy if not always their face value.

Russia was a bizarre exception. Crawling out of the mud of medievalism relatively late in the game, Russia pretended to abjure capital while still faced with the need to deploy it in industry. They solved this paradox conditionally by disqualifying the Russian public from participation in any part of the industrial economy except the hard work, and pretended to pay them in promises for "a brighter future", which never arrived as long as the Soviets remained in charge. (The Russian people repaid the system by only pretending to work.)

In any case, finance for the purpose of deploying capital has prevailed as reality among people who use the implements of the dinner table, but something weird has happened to it in recent years. It has entered a stage of grotesque, hypertrophic metastasis that now threatens the life of the industrial organism it evolved to serve. Its current state can be understood in direct relation to the run-up to peak oil (peak fossil fuel energy, really, since coal and gas figure into it, too). The oil age, we will soon discover, was an anomaly. Many of the things that seemed "normal" under its regime will turn out to have been rather special. And as the beginning of the end of the oil age becomes manifest, these special things are starting to self-destruct pretty spectacularly.

For one thing, finance in the past twenty years has evolved from being an organ serving a larger organism to taking over the organism, becoming a kind of blind, raging dominating parasite on its former host. Or to put it less hyperbolically, it has become an end in itself. That is what they mean when they say that the financial sector has been "driving" the economy. A feature of this ghastly process has been the evolution of financial instruments into ever more abstract entities removed from reality-based productive activities. Stocks and bonds were understood to represent direct investment in enterprise. Sometimes the enterprise was a failure, and sometimes the people running it were swindlers, but no one doubted that common stock represented the hope for profit in a particular venture like making steel or selling laxative chemicals. The new "creatively-innovated" financial "derivatives" of recent years are now so divorced from any real activities or product that often the people trafficking in them don't understand what they're supposed to represent. I'd bet that more than half the people in the New York Stock exchange any given day could not explain the meaning of a credit default swap if a Taliban were holding their oldest child over a window ledge across Wall Street.

The innovation of mutant financial "products" is a symptom of the "crack-up boom" that characterizes society's response to peak oil. The main implication of peak oil for an industrial economy is that the 200-odd-year-long expectation for continued regular growth in combined energy-activity and productivity at roughly three to seven percent a year under "normal" conditions - that expectation is now toast. Under the new regime of peak oil and its aftermath, regular energy depletion, society can expect no further industrial growth but only contraction, and all the certificates, instruments, and operations associated with the expectation for further industrial growth lose their legitimacy. Seen in this light, one can then understand the temporary value of these mutant financial derivatives. They allowed participants to conceal the fact that these "investments" were not directed at productive enterprise. They also provided a cohort of sharpies with "vehicles" for converting the leftovers of the industrial economy into assets for themselves - a form of looting, really. Hence, the employees of Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, and Merrill Lynch gave themselves $50-million Christmas bonuses for trafficking in these inscrutable non-productive financial gimmicks, and were able to acquire fifty-room Easthampton houses, Gulfstream jets, and impressionist paintings.

Of course, the aftermath might not be so pretty for these guys, since the next thing they may acquire could be long prison sentences. If they flee prosecution in their Gulfstream jets, they will not be able to take their Hamptons estates aboard with them. Those who remain may live to see mobs with flaming torches outside their windows, as in the "Frankenstein" movies of their suburban childhoods. But this has yet to play out.

For the moment it appears that we have entered the climax of the crack-up. The slick and inscrutable derivative vehicles infesting the ledgers of the investment banks, are now being systematically revealed as frauds of one kind or another, and, self-evidently lacking in worth. The process now underway is gruesome. The sheer dollar losses involved are almost as incomprehensible as the phony operations and instruments that they are derived from - twelve billion here, nine billion there. As the late Senator Everett Dirkson once quipped, "sooner or later you're talking about real money ..." Or are we? Is it money or "money". And if it's "money", what will become of it? And of us? How will it allow us to live?

Bill Totten


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