Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Real Freak Out

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (March 17 2008)

Note: This is the official publication week of my new 'post-oil' novel, World Made By Hand, a vivid depiction of life in The Long Emergency. Visit the book's website:

Things are getting very weird very fast - and will probably get even weirder, faster, as the train wreck of bad debt meets the Saint Paddy's Day Parade of bacchanalian excess at the grade-crossing of destiny. The train is carrying America's financial system, but the engine driving it is peak oil, because declining energy resources necessarily means declining capital wealth - and declining value of all the institutions, instruments, and markers that denote that wealth or hope to profit by trading in it. The fiasco leads straight to the necessary reinvention of American life on other terms and by other means.

I've maintained for a long time that, even among those who recognize we have a big problem, there are many impediments to imagining a credible outcome. One thing I've noticed is that in any given public meeting (or lecture hall) you can divide participants into two groups: those who believe we will 'high-tech' our way out of this predicament; and those who believe we'll organize our way out.

I don't subscribe to either point of view, strictly speaking. Both points of view assume that there will be an orderly transition between where we're at now and where we're headed. They're tainted by the kindergarten ethos of entitled happy endings and outcomes, which has been the chief operating system for the Baby Boomers, a therapeutic bias for placing 'good feelings' ahead of reality - which also has obliterated the tragic sense of life that acts as the only brake on humanity's inherent hubris.

Ultimately, in my view, the issue of what happens next will be settled not by the fantasies of the algae-biodiesel geeks or the wishful thinking of the sustainable futures organizers, but by the natural, self-organizing properties of a society responding 'emergently' to new circumstances. One of the implications of destiny-as-emergence is the probability that we will try any damn fool thing besides the right things to keep the old game going for a while - even in the face of obvious failure.

I'm sure our political leaders will mount a campaign to rescue the futureless infrastructure of suburbia. It will necessarily be an exercise in futility. But it has already started. That's what the swindle of ethanol has been all about. And the touting of hybrid cars, and the flimflam of "energy independence". Even the "environmental" crowd" squanders most of its attention these days on how to keep all the cars running on something other than gasoline. They don't question the assumption that we will remain a car-dependent society.

As much as I loathe the suburbs in their grotesque late-stage efflorescence, I can understand why those stuck in them would wish to defend their misinvestments. I just hate to think of the political consequences when their disappointment catches up to the reality that the suburbs will not be rescued. And by that I mean not just the houses but the way-of-life associated with them and all its accessories, furnishings, and activities. Bewilderment will soon turn to rage out in the highway-strip and-cul-de-sac empire.

Now, apparently, we'll also opt for a bail-out of all those who tried to become rich by getting something for nothing at both ends of the Ponzi scheme called the housing bubble - the "little guys" who signed mortgage contracts they could never hope to pay off, and the Wall Street playerz who bundled these hopeless contracts into fraudulent securities (and their enablers in the ratings agencies, plus the hedge fund smoothies who tried to cash in by using recondite algorithms to dissolve the risk associated with imprudent lending.) The bail-out is likely to accomplish nothing except the more rapid bankruptcy of government at all levels and a second Great Depression at ground level (worse than the first one).

Over the weekend, the Federal Reserve engineered a $30-billion dollar Saint Paddy's day present for the JP Morgan bank by handing them the corpse of Bear Stearns. The object of the game is to prevent the "assets" of Bear Stearns from going to the auction block, on which they would be discovered to be nearly worthless, which would instantly render all similar assets held by the other big banks to be similarly worthless, and would result in a universal margin call that would pretty much unwind the hallucinated "wealth" acquired the past ten years.

Despite the heroics around the fate of Bear Stearns, it looks like the financial system is tottering anyway. Perhaps the last trick left in the rescue bag will be the 100-basis-point drop in the Fed rate rumored to be announced tomorrow. It won't help any of the big banks, since their problem is holding liabilities in excess of assets. Almost certainly it would crater the US Dollar.

The next thing in store for America, in my opinion, will be a rather new surprise: oil-and-gasoline shortages. While frightened money pours into the oil futures markets, driving the price up, strange behavior will start brewing in the actual physical allocation process. Imports of oil and gas to the US may not be as reliable as it had been when America seemed to be a solvent nation. The exporters may be changing their terms of doing business with us - and that's nearly two-thirds of all the oil we need. The public would probably suck up oil price increases indefinitely, but shortages are going to be something else. A real freak out.

Bill Totten


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