Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, February 08, 2008

Serial Bubbles?

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (February 04 2008)

Eric Janszen of has made a splash in the mainstream media with his Harper's Magazine cover story on the "The Next Bubble". His thesis is that a new tidal wave of investment will shortly roll toward "infrastructure and alternative energy". By this Janszen means a revived nuclear power push, refurbishing highways, bridges, and tunnels, "high-speed rail", solar and wind power, and alternative liquid fuels. This coming boom, he says, would be driven by political fear about energy security.

On the face of it, Janszen's proposition seems more promising and intelligent than the previous engineered boom in suburban houses. But it raises a lot of questions and flags.

For one thing, the term "bubble" suggests something more like a financial Chinese fire drill than actual productive activity. It would be an excellent thing if Americans invested in a restored passenger rail system. But if it were merely a scheme for big banks to issue innovative new securities for gigantic fees without actually getting any trains running - well that would be in the nature of just another old-fashioned swindle, as the bundling of mortgages into securitized debt paper has proven to be.

In other words, does Janszen make a distinction between a boom and a "bubble"? He seems to understand that the previous two bubbles in dot-coms and houses were essentially frauds that generated imaginary wealth, which sooner later evaporated off the balance sheets and out of the financial system. A boom, it seems to me, is not the same as a "bubble". While perhaps wasteful and messy, booms at least produce something of value beyond the fees paid to bankers for arranging the deployment of capital. A boom that resulted in citizens being able to take a train from Boston to Albany would produce a substantial public good. The creation by Goldman Sachs of a company on paper that never accomplished anything would be something else. This, of course, leads to a deeper question as to whether the USA is actually a serious society or just a nation of hopeless, greedy clowns? Are we even capable anymore of distinguishing between purposeful activity and the art of the grift?

This leads to a further consideration of where the capital for "the next bubble" supposedly comes from. Janszen doesn't account for the essentially bankrupt condition of the USA. The capital that was deployed and squandered in the previous two bubbles is not there anymore to be washed, rinsed, and recycled. It's gone. It was winkled out of hundreds of pension funds, millions of individual investors, and, in terms of eventual obligations, the federal government. There is a black hole of unresolved debt where that "capital" used to be.

Janszen's idea seems to be that the new investment comes from simple credit reflation. I don't see how this is possible while the current bubble in housing remains only fractionally "worked out". It has a long way to unwind yet, and a lot of damage to do. It will bring down banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, municipal governments, and leave a lot of individuals impoverished, literally out in the cold. As long as trillions in losses remain concealed or unresolved, the basic system for deploying capital will remain paralyzed.

I wonder if fixing all the infrastructure for happy motoring is not an exercise in futility and another layer of tragic misinvestment. After all, it's based on the assumption that we will still be running huge numbers of cars and trucks decades ahead, and I'm not convinced that this will be possible under any circumstances. The psychology of previous investment will exert a powerful pull to throw money at our highways. It might be more realistic to think of this as a triage process - to ask ourselves how much of this stuff do we just let go of and which parts do we actually keep. Thousands of miles of suburban commercial strip highway six-laners may not be needed at that "level of service". What becomes of them? Do we run trains down the interstates? Surely, we don't want our bridges to crumble.

By the same token, I wonder if our investments in alternative energy will prove to be chimerical - things wished and hoped for but impossible to achieve. My own hunch is that our notions of scale are not consistent with what reality will permit in this field. I don't believe that we will build more than a few giant wind farm installations. Rather, I believe we'll discover that wind power is only really practical on the household or extremely local basis. Ditto solar. I also doubt that we will continue to get all the necessary exotic metals needed to fabricate the hardware for these things. Along similar lines, I believe our expectations for ethanol and bio-diesel fuel production will prove to be not only disappointing but destructive to the food production sector.

All of which is to say that an investment campaign aimed at sustaining the unsustainable by other means would end in tears. Personally, I don't think there will be a "next bubble". I think we're out of bubbles and that our current mode of life in this nation is running out of time. We're facing such an array of potential instabilities that even assuming we continue to live in an orderly society may be too much. Like every other activity in our lives, finance, too, may be in for an epochal downscaling.

Bill Totten


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