Revolving Debt Cheap Energy Economy on Its Knees

Through the tangle of green shoots and sprouting mustard seeds, a certain nervous view persists that the arc of events is taking us to places unimaginable.  The collapse of General Motors and Chrysler signifies more than the collapse of US car manufacturing.  It spells the end of the motoring era in America per se and the puerile fantasy of personal liberation that allowed it to become such a curse to us.

Of course, many Nobel prize-winning economists would argue that it has only been a blessing for us, but that only shows how the newspapers are committing suicide-by-irrelevance. And if other societies, such as China’s late-entry industrial start-up, want to adopt a similar fantasy, they will only find themselves all the sooner in history’s garage with a tailpipe in their mouths.

Here in the USA, we will mount the most strenuous campaign to keep the motoring system going — in fact, we’re already doing it — but it will fail just as surely as two (so far) of the “big three” automakers have failed. It will fail because car-making is only one facet of a larger network of systems that is coming undone, namely a revolving debt cheap energy economy.

Americans will never again buy as many new cars as they were able to do before 2008 on the terms that were normal until then: installment loans.  Our credit system is completely broken.  It choked to death on securitized debt engineered by computer magic and business school hubris.  That complex of frauds and swindles coincided with the background force of peak oil, which meant, among other things, that economic growth based on ever-increasing energy resources was over, and along with it ever-increasing credit.  What it boils down to now is that we can’t service our debt at any level, personal, corporate, or government — and that translates into comprehensive societal bankruptcy.

The efforts of our federal government to work around this now, to cover up the “non-performing” debt and to generate the new lending necessary to keep the old system going, is a tragic exercise in futility.  I’m not saying this to be “pessimistic” grandstanding doomer pain-in-the-ass, but because I would like to see my country make more intelligent choices that would permit us to continue being civilized, to move into the next phase of our history without a horrible self-destructive convulsion.

Another consequence of the debt problem is that we won’t be able to maintain the network of gold-plated highways and lesser roads that was as necessary as the cars themselves to make the motoring system work.  The trouble is you have to keep gold-plating it, year after year. Traffic engineers refer to this as “level-of-service.”  They’ve learned that if the level-of-service is less than immaculate, the highways quickly enter a spiral of disintegration. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported several years ago that the condition of many highway bridges and tunnels was at the “D-minus” level, so we had already fallen far behind on a highway system that had simply grown too large to fix even when we thought we were wealthy enough to keep up. Right now, we’re pretending that the “stimulus” program will carry us over long enough to resume the old method of state-and-federal spending based largely on bonding (that is, debt).

The political dimension of the collapse of motoring is the least discussed part of problem: as fewer and fewer citizens find themselves able to buy and run cars, they will feel increasingly aggrieved at the system set up to make motoring virtually mandatory for all the chores of everyday life, and their resentments will rise against the elite that can still manage to enjoy it.  Because our car-dependency is so extreme, the reaction of the dis-entitled classes is liable to be extreme and probably delusional to an extreme, too.

You can already see it being baked in the cake. Happy Motoring is so entangled in our national identity that the loss of it is bound to cause a national identity crisis.  In places like the American south, the old Dixie states, motoring lifted more than half the population out of the dust, and became the basis of the New South economy.  The sons and grandsons of starving sharecroppers became Chevy dealers and developers of suburban housing tracts, malls, and strip malls.  They don’t have any nostalgia for the historical reality of hookworm and 14-hour-days of serf labor in hundred-degree heat. Theirs is a nostalgia for the present, for air-conditioned comfort and convenience and the groaning all-you-can-eat Shoney’s breakfast buffet off the freeway ramp.  When it is withdrawn from them by the mandate of events, they will be furious.

Given the history of the region and the predilections of its dominant ethnic group, one might imagine that they will want to take out their gall and grievance on the half-African politician who presides over the situation. Among the ever-expanding classes dis-entitled from the so-called American Dream, the crisis is only marginally different in other regions of the nation. Mr. Obama faces a range of awful dilemmas, and it is painful to see them go unrecognized and unacknowledged by his White House.  It’s hard to imagine that the president and his elite advisors are blind to these equations, but as the weeks tick by they seem stuck in a box of limited perception.

We’re in a strange hiatus for now.  “Hope” levitates the legitimacy of the dollar, the stock markets, and the authority of leadership. In the background, implosion continues, debt goes unpaid, banks ignore bad loans to keep them off their books, jobs and incomes vanish, cars and other things go unsold, and a tragic wishfulness strains to sustain the unsustainable. Our expectations are inconsistent with what is happening to us.

It will be very painful for us to walk away from the car-centered life.  Half the population faces the ugly obstacle of being hopelessly over-invested in a suburban house and all the life-ways associated with it. There will be no easy way out for them, whatever they chose to do politically, whatever noise they make, whomever they scapegoat, whatever fantasies they cultivate about what the world owes them, or who they think they are.

Mr. Obama should not waste another week pretending that we can keep this old system going.  The public needs to know that we will be making our livings differently, inhabiting the landscape differently, and spending our days and nights differently — even while we suffer our losses.  The public needs to hear this from more figures than Mr. Obama, too, from leaders in the state capitals, and the agencies, and business and education and what remains of the clergy.  But somebody has to set in motion the chain of recognition, or events will soon do it for us.

James Howard Kunstler

June 8, 2009

The Daily Reckoning