An Unsustainable Way of Life

Can you believe that winter is officially over? Wow, it was a cold couple of months. Makes you want to say, “So much for global warming.”

Except it’s not global warming anymore. Now it’s called “climate change.” Y’see, the cold winter wasn’t a sign of warming. It was a sign of global climate change. Got that? Mankind is burning too much fossil fuel, goes the thesis. So the cold gets colder. The hot gets hotter. The wet gets wetter. The dry gets dryer. And the confusion gets what? More confusing?

So is this game rigged? No matter what the evidence is, goes the argument, just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s all climate change. And that, of course, means that the government knows best. Especially when a certain class of people — with the right policy credentials — are running the government. As in the expression, “Trust us. We’re experts from the government. We’re going to help you.” Or as the narrator used to say at the beginning of the show The Outer Limits, “There is nothing wrong with your television set.” Or as the cops say as you drive past a crash scene today, “Move along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.” Yep. No looky-loo. Just climb aboard the Climate Change Railway Express. No peeking while we raise your taxes.

Decades of Malinvestment Become Apparent

Meanwhile, over the past winter, the economy was in the tank. The deep troubles got deeper. It makes me recall many of those hard times stories I used to hear from family and friends about the Great Depression. It makes me glad I listened.

This past winter, it seemed like all those decades of what the Austrian economists call malinvestment finally found a place in the light of day. But it’s not as if the whole tale were some sort of state secret, like the Venona files at the National Security Agency or something. Really, the nation’s industrial and productive decline was fairly clear all along if you knew what you were seeing. The problem has been hiding in plain sight since August 1971, when President Nixon killed any semblance of a gold-backed dollar.

Or it’s kind of like Peak Oil. M. King Hubbert drew the fundamental Peak Oil graph back in the 1950s. Heck, I heard Hubbert give his speech in fall 1977. I saw Peak Oil in action back when I was working at Gulf Oil Co. in the late 1970s. It was no shock to me, at least, when the world’s crude oil output curve finally maxed out in 2006.

What? Nobody told you that the crude curve maxed out? Hey, the world’s marginal oil output is now mostly natural gas liquids. It means that we’re blowing down the gas caps.

It’s why I like resource and energy companies, companies that bring real stuff to the surface. It’s why I’ll keep writing about energy and resources in a publication like ESI.

Obama’s Economic Policy

I try to avoid getting too “political” in these pages, aside from my rants about issues affecting energy policy, resource policy and the like. So today I’m just going to quote my friend James Howard Kunstler, a longtime Democrat and supporter of Barack Obama in the recent election.

Kunstler just published his comments on the Obama appearance on the CBS News show 60 Minutes on Sunday, March 22. According to Kunstler, Obama “may perfectly represent the majority who elected him… because he also appears to be in full-commanding denial of the realities overtaking our American experience. Those realities include the fact that we can’t possibly return to the easy-credit and no-money-down ‘consumer’ economy, no matter how many nominal dollars get shoveled into the fiery furnaces of banks too big to fail.”

After describing the economic policies coming out of Congress and the new presidential administration, Kunstler continues: “Lending on the scale that became normal over the last decade is, for sure, the one thing that we will not recover. We turn around in 2009 to find ourselves a much poorer nation than we thought we were a year ago, especially among that broad range of formerly middle-class wage-earners who lived so luxuriously until yesterday. The public can’t process this reality, and the president, for all his relaxed charm, is either not ready to articulate it, or can’t process it himself.”

Kunstler describes the process of the Fed releasing new currency — created out of thin air — to buy up Treasury debt. He comments: “It would be sententious to explain how this destroys currencies, but wherever ‘monetizing debt’ has been tried before in history, that is the outcome. The result would be ruinous at every level and would lead straight to the second terrible force: social upheaval brought on by the conversion of economic problems into political turbulence.”

In my view, Jim Kunstler is exactly on target with his comments. I’m watching the shenanigans in Washington with something approaching utter fear. It’s why I’m recommending investments in gold and energy plays.

Spend, Borrow, Tax, Inflate

I’m truly worried about our future. The things that are going on in the U.S. economy are not sustainable, and I don’t just mean “happy motoring” into the Peak Oil future. The whole economy is on the edge. I don’t see anything on the political or policy horizon that offers any semblance of hope. Nothing. It’s just spend, spend, spend. Borrow, borrow, borrow. And tax, tax, tax.

What’s in all of this for you? What’s in it for me? A lot of inflation, most likely. That’s why you need to buy gold with 5-10% of your portfolio. And have more of your portfolio in good, solid mining firms.

Building on Kunstler’s comments just a bit more, the Obama economic policy assumes that someone out there will still buy U.S. Treasury paper. But will that happen? The best customers for U.S. debt are distinctly unenthusiastic about adding to their holdings.

The Chinese already own a trillion dollars or so in Treasury bills that are depreciating in value. Besides, China needs a continent full of new infrastructure, plus social spending for 1.3 billion people. And don’t forget the new navy China is planning, with which to police its interests from Africa to the central Pacific Ocean and onto South America. All of this will sop up funds China once used to buy U.S. securities.

Another large traditional customer for U.S. debt is Japan. But Japan is running a current account deficit. It lacks the large numbers of dollars to recycle.

In the Middle East, the petro states are no longer receiving a flood of dollars from high-priced oil ($147 per barrel last July). Don’t count on them to buy up U.S. Treasuries.

The bottom line is I don’t know — and I don’t know anyone else who knows — where the buyers will come from to absorb all the new debt that the Obama and congressional spending plans are going to generate. Something has to give. It’s going to be the long-term value of the dollar. I expect to see a lot of fuel poured onto the fires of inflation.

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading.

Byron W. King

March 25, 2009

The Daily Reckoning