Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Falling Into Fall

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (September 22 2008)

So many shoes are poised to drop this week that the American scene might be confused for the world's greatest-ever clog dancing festival, but a closer look will reveal a circle of cavorting skeletons.

Last week's ripe moment turned out to be the Thursday night Washington photo op when Treasury Secretary Paulson and Fed Chief Bernanke emerged from a huddle with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and just about every other legislative eminentissimo in an attempt to reassure the nation that its financial system had not turned into something like unto a truckload of stinking dead carp. I don't know about you, but I got two distinct vibes from the faces in that particular tableau: (1) abject fear, and (2) a total lack of conviction that they knew what they were doing.

The product of that huddle was a cockamamie scheme for the US treasury to absorb all the losses from a twenty-year binge in which Wall Street created and retailed the most complex set of swindles ever seen on this planet Earth. The background music to the tableau was the whoosh of a several trillion dollars exiting the US financial system never to be seen again.

The next day (Friday) many particulars of that scheme began to emerge - such as the complete lack of oversight and review mechanisms for Treasury's new power to monetize private business failures and frauds - and the stock market soared in response. Other new features of the reformed capital landscape also resolved later that day, like a new experiment aimed at eliminating the short sale as a way of guaranteeing that henceforth market bets could only be placed on the upside of the table. It will be interesting to see how that reform works out in the days ahead.

Over the weekend, all these various playerz retreated into their gilded bunkers to negotiate the details, and by Sunday night, among other things, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley - the two remaining investment giants left standing - announced that they would metamorphose into regular banks in order to qualify for additional truckloads of government loans in exchange for any leftover fraudulant securities still lurking in their vaults. Another new provision had the Treasury rescuing swindled foreign companies, too - in effect, saving the world, which seemed at least, how you say, pretty ambitious.

By this morning, many new arguments had been raised by a suddenly de-zombified congress as to whether the proposed grand bail-out might reward recent Wall Street turpitudes and incentivize future mis-deeds and it looks like enough objections may be lodged to gum-up the process before it even goes into effect - which, of course, would tend to revert the whole reeking cargo of trouble to its original train-wreck trajectory. I guess we'll see what happens now.

Any way you paint this grotesque panorama, it looks like a very new chapter of history for life in the USA. Basically, we are a much poorer nation than we were even a couple of years ago, and we have a much-reduced ability to project our will around the world, or even among our own floundering sectors and regions. Most troubling to me is the question of legitimacy that now hangs over the proscenium like a guillotine blade. Factoring in the old saw that history doesn't repeat but it rhymes, I think the situation emerging is rather like the crisis of legitimacy that preceded the Civil War. Then, in the 1850s, the nation's two symbiotic political parties, Whig and Democrat, entered a zone of fatal discredit. The White House had been occupied by a sequence of empty cravats named Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, and so much pent-up mistrust roiled the centers of power that the nation entered a convulsion.

At issue then was the great festering unresolved polity of slavery. The Whig party, in its oafish, craven fecklessness, disappeared so quickly from the scene that an embarrassed God Almighty seemed to have hooked it off-stage in a nanosecond. Into the vacuum stepped an awkward lawyer from Illinois - widely mocked by the coarser elements of what was then called the press as a figure resembling an ape in a stovepipe hat. He accomplished one crucial thing in the process of his emergence: he deployed a potent rhetoric that captured the essence of the crisis and clarified it for all to understand what was at stake - and then the convulsion commenced in earnest.

The Republican Party amounts to today's Whigs. Their candidate for president, John McCain, is trying to run away from his own party - as one might shrink away from a colony of importuning lepers. I am actually not kidding when I label the Republicans "the party that wrecked America", because I believe that is truly how the popular strain of history will regard them when (maybe if) the wreckage of their ministrations ever clears. But history doesn't repeat exactly. The current figure from Illinois, Barrack Obama, has yet to offer a truly crisis-clarfying rhetoric, though he labors under the expectation of being able to do so. Like his long-ago predecessor, he is mocked by the courser elements of what we call "the media" these days - Fox News and the moron-rousers of talk radio.

Some of the issues yet to be clarified concern the behavior of the American public in the broad sense. We have obdurately resisted the reality of the energy crisis that hangs over everything we do (as slavery hung over the 1850s), from the way we inhabit the landscape to the way we do daily business in our 240-million-plus fleet of cars and trucks that ply the ribbons of asphalt and the lagoons of parking that now run from sea to shining sea where the fruited plain was replaced by the Wal Marts.

Mr Obama isn't kidding either when he alludes to the change America faces, though history has not yet rhymed enough for his rhetoric to really set forth the terms of this change in its stark particulars. And even if he is able to articulate these things, he won't forestall the convulsion anymore than Lincoln held back a war between the states. That prior crisis was when America learned good and hard how tragic life could be, and it colored our national character for a century - until we chucked it all to become a society of overfed clowns, with God Almighty replaced by Ronald McDonald. That pageant of happy idiocy is now ending. Like everyone else in this fraught and nervous land, I'm standing by to see what transpires in the days just ahead.


My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.

Bill Totten


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