Sustaining the Unsustainable: The Abyss Stares Back
The public perception of the ongoing fiasco in governance has moved from sheer, mute incomprehension to goggle-eyed panic as the scrims of unreality peel away revealing something like a national death-watch scene in history’s intensive care unit. Is the USA in recession, depression, or collapse? People are at least beginning to ask. Nature’s way of hinting that something truly creepy may be up is when both Paul Volcker and George Soros both declare on the same day that the economic landscape is looking darker than the Great Depression.
Those tuned into the media-waves were enchanted, in a related instance, by Rick Santelli’s grand moment of theater in the Chicago trader’s pit last week when he seemed to ignite the first spark of revolution by demonstrating that bail-out fatigue had morphed into high emotion — and that the emotion could be marshaled against public policy. The traders in the pit on-screen seemed to color up and buzz loudly, like ordinary grasshoppers turning into angry locusts preparing to ravage a waiting valley. “Are you listening, President Obama?” Mr. Santelli asked portentously.
In the broad blogging margins of the web that orbit the mainstream media like the rings of Saturn, an awful lot of reasonable people have begun to ask whether President Obama is a stooge of whatever remains of Wall Street, with Citigroup and Goldman Sachs’s puppeteer, Robert Rubin, pulling strings behind an arras in the Oval Office. Personally, I doubt it, but it is still a little hard to understand what the President is up to. For one thing, the stimulus package, so-called, looks more and more like national sub-prime mortgage itself, a bad bargain made under less-than-realistic terms, with future obligations fobbed onto whoever inhabits this corner of the world for the next seven hundred years — and all to pay for a bunch of granite counter-tops and flat-screen TVs.
I suppose Mr. Obama is burdened with the knowledge that the economic truth is so much worse than he imagined back in November that there is simply nothing to do at this point except pretend to serve up a “tasting menu” of rescue plans in the hope that markets and mechanisms might be conned back into compliance with our wish keep getting something-for-nothing forever. FDR already used the fear of fear itself trope, so Mr. O is left with little more than displaying pluck and confidence in the face of overwhelming bad news.
The sad truth is that banking has become a Chinese fire drill — a frantic act of futility — as insolvent companies persist in covering up their losses in order to avoid the counter-party hell of credit default swaps that would ring the world’s “game over” bell. This can only go on so long. All the chatter about “nationalizing” the banks really boils down to what kind of bankruptcy work-out will they be put through, how destructive will the process be, and how much of the pain can be shoved forward in time to people now in diapers and their descendants.
Among the questions that disturb the sleep of many casual observers is how come Mr. O doesn’t get that the conventional process of economic growth — based, as it was, on industrial expansion via revolving credit in a cheap-energy-resource era — is over, and why does he keep invoking it at the podium? Dear Mr. President, you are presiding over an epochal contraction, not a pause in the growth epic. Your assignment is to manage that contraction in a way that does not lead to world war, civil disorder or both. Among other things, contraction means that all the activities of everyday life need to be downscaled including standards of living, ranges of commerce, and levels of governance. “Consumerism” is dead. Revolving credit is dead — at least at the scale that became normal the last thirty years. The wealth of several future generations has already been spent and there is no equity left there to re-finance.
If contraction and downscaling are indeed the case, then the better question is: why don’t we get started on it right away instead of flogging rescue plans to restart something that is DOA? Downscaling the price of over-priced houses would be a good place to start. This gets to the heart of Rick Santelli’s crowd-stirring moment. Let the chumps and weasels who over-reached take their lumps and move into rentals. Let the bankers who parlayed these fraudulent mortgages into investment swindles lose their jobs, surrender their perqs, and maybe even go to jail (if attorney general Eric Holder can be induced to investigate their deeds). No good will come of propping up the false values of mis-priced things.
No good, in fact, will come of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable, which is exactly what the Obama program is starting to look like. In the folder marked “unsustainable” you can file most of the artifacts, usufructs, habits, and expectations of recent American life: suburban living, credit-card spending, Happy Motoring, vacations in Las Vegas, college education for the masses, and cheap food among them. All these things are over. The public may suspect as much, but they can’t admit it to themselves, and political leadership has so far declined to speak the truth about it for them — in short, to form a useful consensus that will allow us to move forward effectively. One of the sad paradoxes of politics is that democracies do not seem very good at disciplining their citizens’ behavior. The wish to please voters and the influence of campaign money overwhelm even leaders with mature instincts. In America’s case, this could lead to what I like to call corn-pone Naziism a few years down the road. Someone will design snazzy uniforms and get us all marching around to “God Bless America.” At the point of a gun.
It’s not too late for President Obama to start uttering these truths so that we can avoid a turn to fascism and get on with the real business of America’s next phase of history — living locally, working hard at things that matter, and preserving civilized culture. What a lot of us can see now staring out of the abyss is a new dark age. I don’t think it’s necessarily our destiny to end up that way, but these days we’re not doing much to avoid it.
James Howard Kunstler
February 24, 2009