The Ponzi Scheme Unwinds in America and Europe

Everybody in the world is broke, except for maybe Lloyd Blankfein, and he may not end up broke so much as broken — by a political meat-grinder that is revving up to turn the world’s woes and swindles into a new kind of Long Emergency sausage, to be distributed among the roiling, angry masses as a synthetic substitute for nutriment. Call it a synthetic non-collateralized political obligation.

Something snapped in the world last week and a lot of people around the world sensed it — especially in the organs of news and opinion — but this ominous twang was not very clearly identified. It was, in fact, the sound of the financial becoming political. The macro-swindle of a worldwide Ponzi orgy now stands revealed and the vacuum left in its place is about to suck everything familiar into it — standards-of-living, hopes, dreams, not to mention lives. The political action will be a desperate scramble to determine who and what is able to escape getting sucked into this black hole of annihilation. It’s very suddenly shaping up to become an epic in human history.

Meanwhile, a giant oil blob lies quivering in deep waters off the Gulf coast, like some awful amorphous Moby Dick full of malice waiting to sink Pequod America — or at least the economies of five states. A few months from now, the BP corporation will wonder why it didn’t go into something safe and predictable like the pants business instead of oil exploration. They will surely question the viability of conducting future business anywhere near the USA, and the USA will enter a wilderness of soul-searching about the drill-baby-drill strategy that only a few scant weeks ago seemed to be a settled matter. Tough to have your future hoped-for energy supplies evaporate at the same time that your hopes for future prosperity get sucked into a black hole.

I’ve maintained for a long time that the folks down Dixie way are the the most dangerously crazy people in America and the Deepwater Horizon oil blob is not going to improve their outlook when it slops over their beaches and bayous. They’ll blame Obama for it by syllogism. Anyway, they are only marginally more crazy than the rest of the folks in the USA. Those folks are warming up for an election season that is going to send a horde of exterminating angels into the halls of congress and the governor’s mansions, and before too long those merchants of retribution are going to appoint their inquisitors. It’s going to be a heckuva spectacle. In retrospect, Mary Shapiro’s SEC will look like the Council of Trent. You can be sure that if ten gallons of gasoline remain to be found in America a few years from now, they will power the last GMC Sierra to drag the captains of Wall Street through the sawgrass prairies of Collier County, Florida.

What has gone on in Europe the past few weeks is nothing more complicated than a waking-up to how broke they are. We’re not quite there yet on this side of the Atlantic. They fired one last bazooka of wishfulness at the enveloping monster of debt and the monster laughed at them, and now they are standing in the windows of palatial edifice of the Euro Union waiting to see who will jump first. Here in the USA, we’re still dazed and confused. What for a long time had looked like a game of musical chairs is morphing into something more like a national Chinese fire drill, a pointless running around in circles in the hope that sheer motion will be an adequate substitute for conscious action. In any case, both Europe and the USA are out of bazooka ammo now. Nobody can bail out so much as another lemonade stand. From here on governments really start to crumble.

As in any time of severe turmoil, all political bets are off. There are insinuations in the press, for instance, that the communists will rise up in Greece and overthrow the elected government. That’s rich, since communism was flushed down the human race’s credibility toilet twenty years ago. The Greek opposition may even call themselves communists, but what on earth could they mean by that? There are no “means of production” left in a country whose economy consists solely of cab-drivers, bellboys, and waiters. There’s no “wealth” to redistribute, only the pain of collective economic loss when the tourists stop landing.

Elsewhere in Europe, each national house is being outfitted with a procrustean bed of austerity. The various publics are not going to like lying in them. They ain’t no Tempurpedics. History being the shape-shifting demon that it is, I imagine that this time around the Brits will be the ones who elect Nazis —or something like them — while the still-chastened Germans find themselves in the odd position of becoming Europe’s moral guardian — its sole-surviving “good parent” figure, striving to maintain some residue of collective goodwill in Europe’s once-ritzy gated community. Great historical figures always arise from unexpected places — Corsica, Kentucky. Maybe some great unifying leader even now warms a seat in a Norwegian law school.

God knows what the Europeans will make of the helter-skelter scene playing out here in the States. Perhaps some species of schadenfreude tinged with regret for the missing stream of tourists. My own guess is that there may not even be a president of the US after Mr. Obama. Rather, events will get so gnarly and disordered so fast that somebody like General Patraeus will have to step in for a while and keep the reincarnation of the Ku Klux Klan from trying to murder every non-Cracker from sea to shining sea. Of course, once that happens, we probably don’t go back. It’s not Imperial Rome (release 2.0) after that, either, because even the mighty US military will be too strapped for a means of support to continue operating. Instead, it’s the devolution of the US into functionally autonomous regions and states — and even that scale of governance may be too great for the stringent economic realities of the years ahead.

There remains, of course, the very great question of what the rest of people of the world — the non-Western world — do as the West spins into insolvency and tribulation. The Islamists will do everything possible to make things worse, and there’s a lot they can do, from restricting their oil exports (maybe cutting them off altogether) to provoking the immigrant populations of Europe into political violence to possibly setting a few nukes off in their enemy’s front yard.

The Chinese will affect to referee the collapse of the West, but soon they’ll be sucked into their own implosion of population overshoot and resource scarcity. India you can forget about out — zero oil. Russia gets to kick back in glorious isolation and enjoy the methane fumes of the melting tundra. South America will heed the wise words of a forgotten 18th Century Viceroy of Mexico who explained his method of administration thusly: “Do little, and do it slowly!”

James Howard Kunstler
Whiskey & Gunpowder

May 18, 2010