Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Jobs Picture

by James Howard Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(2005) (December 06 2010)

The clarion cries of "recovery" cut painfully through the crisp pre-Christmas air while the now-perpetually unemployed huddle in their tents around the Sacramento delta, and the state AGs [attorney generals] slug it out with the foreclosure goons, and not a few mortgage payment drop-outs enjoy luxury living in McMansions with no monthly carrying costs, and the minions of Goldman Sachs (with fellow squids) groom their beaks waiting for the massive chum slick of bonus checks to be dropped by helicopters in this the third holiday season since Wall Street committed suicide by an overdose of Ponzi.

It's pathetic to hear the wan cry of "recovery" issued by the high priests and tribunes of this land. Do the president and his train of wizards really suppose that all the necessary pieces are in place to re-start the economic dynamics of, say, 2003? A million busboys and lawn service lackeys lining up for half-million dollar liar loans at the Countrywide office? BCA, Citi, and all the other big banks pawning off bundles upon bundles of these worthless obligations to insurance companies, pension funds, foolish endowment fund managers and any other reckless entity desperate for yield? A hyperbolic consumer economy pyramid resting on a base of empty promises to repay?

Sorry. There's no way the USA can ever "recover" to that lush breeding ground of swindling, fraud, and childish irresponsibility. The hardships of today do not represent a dip in some regular cycle of financial push-me-pull-you. This is a systemic, structural change in the socio-economic ecology of human life. Those who have been shuffling from one office to another with their dog-eared resumes, and clothing pressed under the mattress while sleeping, are bound to be disappointed. The very idea of a "job" may be obsolete, in the sense of bureaucratically organized endeavors complete with a "human resources" department that can just plug in human components like diodes in an engineered system.

Among the surprises I've suggested over the years is the idea that people used to spending long hours in cubicles staring at video screens may, at some point ahead, begin to spend their days in the fresh air, cultivating food crops. I'm sure this sounds outlandish. But we begin to see the new dynamic of this world resolving in the nexus between a crisis of capital, climate change, and peak oil.

Food is getting scarce. Worldwide grain reserves stand at unprecedented lows. Droughts in Russia and Australia mean that basic foods will be in short supply on the margins - that is, the impoverished countries we used to call "third world" that depend on grain imports. The American supermarket aisles still groan with every conceivable staple and delicacy, but note the prices of things. A buck and a half for four little onions. $1.18 for one apple. $4 for a jar of jam. Compare these numbers with the wages that have not gone up effectively since around 1970.

As I write this morning, oil is eleven cents short of $90 a barrel. That's well into the price range that destroys economic activity in the USA. Why is the price of oil creeping up relentlessly in a structurally impaired economy? My guess is the beginning of hoarding on the grand scale, as nations slowly wake to the reality of the world production peak, and scramble to max out their tank-farm capacity. By the way, the price of oil could easily crash again - and, I believe the period just ahead will be marked by extreme volatility in oil prices - but if it goes back down to $20 a barrel we'll probably be in a situation where nobody has any money to buy it even at bargain basement prices. That was exactly the situation seventy-odd years ago during the Great Depression: plenty of everything; but no money.

The crisis of capital still has many acts to play out. The current installment taking place in Europe is a game of musical chairs played by nations who cannot pay their debts or the regular bills. The Euro was on its way sliding into oblivion a week or so ago when the European Central Bank and the IMF came up with a few billion to cover bond interest for deadbeat countries through the Christmas season - at the same time that Ben Bernanke's Fed offered up a $75-billion-a-month bid for US Treasury bonds (and god-knows-really what other sort of dodgy paper, based on the Fed's track record of hosing up every distressed instrument on the landscape, including the notes on cheap chain hotels). The Euro bounced back, at least in relation to the US dollar. The same darn skit will have to be replayed in the first quarter of 2011 and my guess is that German voters will pull the IV-line of financial support out of its terminally ailing neighbors. The net effect will be stupendous economic confusion and a lot of bad feeling. This is the year that Europe ceases to be a theme park and reverts to a continent of dangerous squabbles and beefs.

America has appeared to be a bystander to that spectacle - apart from all the European banks and insurance operations that Ben Bernanke dropped TARP money on, it was revealed last week - but the US financial situation is every bit as sketchy as Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and we have no idea how we're going to cover our obligations after Christmas.

This idea of "recovery" promulgated by authority figures who ought to know better is the cruelest swindle of them all, and perhaps the final one. If you want something like gainful employment in the years ahead, don't rely on the corporations, the government, or anyone with a work station equipped cubicle. Start reading up on gardening and harness repair. Learn how to fix a pair of shoes. Volunteer for EMT duty if you're already out of a paycheck, and learn how to comfort people in medical distress. Jobs of the future will be hands-on and direct. I have no idea what medium of exchange you'll get paid with, but a chicken is a good start.


Mr Kunstler's new novella, A Christmas Orphan, is available for purchase through Northshire Bookstore. His biography is at

Bill Totten


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