Disasters Far and Near: Haiti and the U.S. Economy

As the disaster in Haiti moves into its “Katrina” phase of a organizational chaos, relief effort failure, and public health calamity, the world will get another lesson in the dangers of techno-triumphalist posturing. American authority pretends to be in flawless control of a situation that by the minute crumbles into anarchy and death as the generals strut their stuff and the CNN crews broadcast yet another feel-good segment about adopted orphans. At this point, one rainstorm is all it will take to kill what is left of the Haitian social order.

It’s a tragedy for the ages, and tragedy is a fulcrum of the human condition that techno-triumphalism pretends to have vanquished. All the meals-ready-to-eat on God’s green earth won’t add up to a happy ending for everybody. Haiti was a disaster waiting to happen every bit as much as the Federal Reserve is for us. For decades, the USA’s policy (and the UN’s too) was just to stuff more food aid onto an island already so far beyond its carrying capacity for human existence that every new birth certificate was a death warrant in disguise. But free people are free to do what they will do, and in Haiti there was not much more to do than make more people.

Now the USA will also pretend that there is a Haitian government in charge — as in the pathetic grandstanding of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the other day — though the Haitian government was a fiction for decades before the earthquake struck. The recent blatherings of Bill Clinton would have us believe that Haiti is poised to become an exemplar of economic development for the Caribbean once things are tidied up there. What planet are these people living on? (Answer: Planet Limousine.) Rather Haiti is the example of what life may become in nations bethinking themselves developed further along in The Long Emergency. If the figures on world crop failures for 2009 are relevant, even places like the USA may get a taste of this before the end of 2010.

On the home front we have President Obama’s announcement last week of a tax on banks that received bailouts of one kind or another.  This tax, he said, would amount to $90 billion over ten years. That’s pretty funny, since there is no shortage of opinion to the effect that ten years from now $90 billion might buy you a box of Little Debbie Snack Cakes — if the means of production are even there to make the darn things. Here’s an idea: if the USA is going to backstop companies that are not allowed to fail, then maybe these companies should fork over hefty premiums for what is, in effect, an insurance policy. For instance, those billions now slated to be paid in in bonuses to the likes of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan / Chase, Citibank, et cetera ad nauseum. Let them just pony up these bonuses to the taxpayers every year as long as they enjoy backstop insurance. (They’ll still have very hefty salaries.) And, by the way, those bundles of money don’t even cover these bank’s off-balance-sheet liabilities.

I raise these indelicate points to argue that the stories we are telling ourselves these days do not reflect the real circumstances we find ourselves in, and will not help us to get through the difficult times ahead.  In fact, they amount to an invitation for more tragedy. The more the USA imagines itself to be too big to fail — and immune to the mandates of reality — the more likely we are to fail massively. The more we indulge in techno-triumphalism and organizational grandiosity, the more chaos we invite. The signal failure for the moment is the Obama regime’s unwillingness to imagine that the old economy is dead and that no amount of financial mortician’s wax and rouge will bring it back to life. Stunts such as so-called Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee (the $90 billion tax over ten years) will only corrode what is left of Mr. Obama’s authority as its meaninglessness reveals itself.

In the meantime, no one with any real authority has asked figures like Hank Paulson, Lloyd Blankfein, and Tim Geithner under oath exactly how Goldman Sachs managed to get paid 100-cents on the dollar for derivatives bets from the foundering AIG; and how come in the first place Goldman Sachs was short-selling the fraud-riddled derivative securities it was packaging for sale as AAA-rated paper to credulous investors; and many other pertinent questions of the day that ultimately must be answered and settled within the rule of law. Funny, too, that our constitutional law professor president hasn’t demanded this from his own Department of Justice. I maintain that it’s crucial to settle these matters if we don’t expect to become an entirely lawless nation.  It’s necessary to break up the TBTF banks.  It’s necessary to investigate their officers, and prosecute them if the facts warrant it.  It’s necessary to open up the dark vaults of off-balance-sheet liabilities and dispose of them at their true value.

It’s necessary to start telling ourselves a different story about where we are going. We’re destined to become a different kind of society and economy. If that future economy is not based on real productive activity conducted at a scale consistent with resource realities, then we will starve to death, or watch our infrastructures of daily life crumble away to nothing, or hack each other to pieces as the the people in Haiti may do before the end of this week. Goldman Sachs and its cohorts are not necessary for the future economy of the USA.  In fact, they’re already dead. The real zombies of this world stalk the sidewalks of Wall Street, not the swamps of Port-au-Prince.

James Howard Kunstler
January 20, 2010