Our Economic Future: From Best to Worst Case
WORST CASE – WAR
War is the worst thing that can happen to an economy, but it’s also the most likely thing at this point. When the going gets tough, the people in charge like to blame somebody else for the problem. That’s compounded by the foolish – but widely accepted – notion that war is good for the economy and that, for instance, it pulled the U.S. out of the last depression.
Like all wars, this one results in a complete stifling of civil and economic freedoms. If my second scenario is unpleasant, this alternative is grim.
The big conflict has already been teed up – the continuation of the Forever War between Islam and the West. I’ll hazard the major situs will be Europe – which has pretty much always been the case for wars in general for the last 2,000 years. Europe will be the worst place to be over the next two decades. And North America will be locked down like a police compound.
China will have serious social turmoil as it is forced to reorient an export-driven economy catering to Europe and the U.S. As in the past, South America will be out of the conflict and in a position to benefit from it. India will also be a net beneficiary, largely uninvolved, and happy to watch their ex-colonial masters rope-a-dope themselves into poverty.
People will always argue who really started it. Was it the Muslims when they poured out of Arabia in the 630s? Or was it the West when it invaded the Near East with the Crusades starting in 1099? Or was it the Muslims when the Turks took Constantinople in 1453 (although only 40 year later the Muslims would lose Grenada, in Spain, as the reconquista was completed) and then moved on to almost conquer Europe before being turned back at Vienna in 1683? Or is it more relevant just to look at recent history, starting at the beginning of the 19th century, when the West conquered and colonized every single Muslim country? Or the very recent past, when Muslims were counter-attacking, using a new military approach popularly called “terrorism”?
My bottom line is that the next twenty years may be dominated by the Forever War that started in the 600s, being resumed in earnest. At least in Europe, it has the prospect of becoming a war of survival, much nastier than either WW1 or WW2.
That resumption is being accelerated by what is going on in the Middle East now. The chances that the upheaval in the Arab world will just peter out and everyone will return to thestatus quo ante are about zero. It’s a culture-wide affair, much as the revolutions in Eastern Europe were. Or, for that matter, the revolutions against Spain in South America at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Arab revolutions are a good thing, in that they’re getting rid of criminal regimes. Some will be replaced with equally repressive cliques, although manned with different criminals. I suspect a few might be more like the French Revolution of 1789; good riddance to the old regime, but then came Robespierre. And after him Napoleon.
Regardless of how the tumult plays out in any particular country, the erstwhile docile collaborators with Europe and the U.S. are being elbowed aside, and the regimes that replace them are going to accommodate the vast public constituency for hostility toward the West, if only for the sake of internal political advantage.
The war is not going to be fought with conventional armies. First of all because the Islamic world doesn’t have any that would last more than a day or two against a Western army. But also because a Western army is useless against an amorphous mass of millions of people.
So what will the conflict be like? Amorphous and disjointed, chaotic and without fixed fronts. Millions of Muslims are in Europe – Pakistanis in the UK, Turks in Germany, North Africans in France, Indonesians in Holland. Europe’s destructive conquest of the world has come back to bite. These people will approach majority status over the next 20 years, both because they reproduce at several times the rate of the Europeans and because they’re not being absorbed. And because, now, millions and millions more are going to arrive as boat people.
The natives aren’t going to like it, for lots of reasons. And the outcome will likely resemble what always happens when large numbers of unwelcome foreigners invade a territory: violence.
One consequence of the war, and especially of the collapse of the regime in Arabia (in 2031 it’s no longer called Saudi Arabia, because the ruling Saud family – at least the ones who couldn’t get to their jets in time – has been massacred) is a cut-off of oil until the U.S. invades.
I hate to overemphasize oil, but the world still runs on it. When something does happen in Arabia, you can count on a disruption in the shipment of oil. And absolutely count on active U.S. intervention.
A prolonged guerrilla war, similar to those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other Arab countries will follow. But there won’t be any cover story about ousting a bad guy or bringing democracy to the oppressed. It will be pretty obvious to everybody that, from the West’s point of view, it will start out simply to answer the question: What’s our oil doing under their sand? But from the Muslim’s point of view, it will be a different question: How can we rid ourselves of these aggressive infidels once and for all? Then the West will rephrase their question to: These people want to kill us! How can we stop them once and for all?
You may be thinking that the U.S. can’t lose a war because it has a large and extremely high-tech military. All those expensive toys can be useful from time to time; they can win lots of small battles. But they’re basically useless for winning the next generation of warfare, as useless as cavalry in WW1, battleships in WW2, tanks in Vietnam or nuclear missiles today.
What? Nuclear missiles obsolete? Of course. They’re expensive, clunky, and the enemy can tell exactly where they came from. A plane, or a boat, or a truck – or a FedEx package – is a much neater delivery system. And there will be plenty of nuclear devices to deliver. If they’re within the grasp of tiny countries like Israel and North Korea, they’re within the grasp of anyone.
In fact, the centerpieces of today’s military are well on their way to the scrapheap or to museum displays. There may well be a few aircraft carriers, nuclear missiles, B-2 bombers, F-22 fighters, and the like around in 20 years. But they’ll be oddities reserved for special purposes, like typewriters. Laser, electronic and robotic weapons will have replaced those using gunpowder, and they’ll be readily available to anyone (an accelerant in the collapse of the nation-state). The military’s reliance on centralization and on computer power will prove an Achilles heel; a gang of teenage hackers (not only the best kind, but the most common kind) can devastate a military for pure sport.
Conquest of wealth or territory will be pointless; that’s one thing even the Soviets suspected in the ‘80s, when they still had the power to invade Western Europe. It’s now nothing like in the old days, when a successful war yielded lots of gold, cattle and slaves. This lack of an economic return will obviate one reason for a military. The hollowing-out of nation-states will obviate another; governments will find they just don’t have either the financial means or the popular support for serious military establishments.
The military, as the cutting edge of the nation-state, is in serious decline. Conflict between groups will still exist, of course, but it will be more informal, more the kind of thing that a Mafia or an Al-Qaeda might conduct. The growth of private military contractors, like Blackwater (now Xe), which only need be paid when in use, is indicative.
A BASIC PLAN
Sorry I can’t do any better than a best-case scenario that just isn’t very rosy – at least over the near term. And there’s a high likelihood of the worst-case scenario. There will probably be some overlapping elements from all three, if I’m on the right track.
From an economic point of view, I see only two things as being predictable: One, that many people will always produce more than they consume and save the difference; this will create capital, which is critical for not only a higher standard of living, but for the advancement of technology.
Two, that since there are currently more scientists and engineers alive than have lived in all previous history combined, technology will keep advancing; technology is the major force to advance the general standard of living. So that’s essentially why I’m an optimist. Let’s just hope the savers aren’t wiped out, and the scientists don’t do too much government work.
The most sensible plan for the next 20 years is to plan to survive. The days of “He who dies with the most toys wins,” and of two whole generations living way above their means, are over.
20 years isn’t forever. Think of it like a bear market, when the best thing to do is take your chips off the table, grab some books and retire to the beach for a year – except that this is going to be a lot longer and more serious. Nonetheless, I expect my fundamental optimism to get through it undamaged, as should yours.
For one thing, the long-term trend is favorable. Mankind has risen from subsistence and living in caves as little as 12,000 years ago, to reaching for the stars today – and the rate of progress has been accelerating. Why should that stop now?
But, as I mentioned earlier, thinking too far in the future is perhaps pointless. So what should you do now? The essential advice remains the same:
* Own gold and silver. At Casey Research, we’ve made a lot of money on them – and they’re no longer cheap – but they’re going higher, simply for lack of alternatives. Look at them as you would cash.
* Produce more than you consume, and save the difference. This is no longer the time for promiscuous, conspicuous consumption.
* Be alert for speculations. Some markets will collapse (for instance, I wouldn’t want to own a McMansion in the suburbs or a “collectible” car). Other markets will likely turn into manias, benefiting from trillions of new currency units (I suspect mining stocks will be one of them).
* Diversify your assets (and yourself) politically and geographically. As big a risk as the markets will be, your government is an even bigger one.
And, incidentally, we’re going to be looking carefully at the stock markets in the Arab world. It’s too early to buy. But there’s a time and a price for everything.