Friday, 1 February 2008

Zombie Economics

by James Howard Kunstler 24 November 2008 Though Citicorp is deemed too big to fail, it's hardly reassuring to know that it's been allowed to sink its fangs into the Mother Zombie that the US Treasury has become and sucked out a multi-billion dollar dose of embalming fluid so it can go on pretending to be a bank for a while longer. I employ this somewhat clunky metaphor to point out that the US Government is no more solvent than the financial zombies it is keeping on walking-dead support. And so this serial mummery of weekend bailout schemes is as much of a fraud and a swindle as the algorithm-derived-securities shenanigans that induced the disease of bank zombification in the first place. The main question it raises is whether, eventually, the creation of evermore zombified US dollars will exceed the amount of previously-created US dollars now vanishing into oblivion through compressive debt deflation. My guess, given the usual time-lag factor, is that the super-inflation snap-back will occur six to eighteen months from now. And the main result of all this will be our inability to buy the imported oil that comprises two-thirds of the oil we require to keep WalMart and Walt Disney World running. At some point, then, in the early months of the Obama administration, we'll learn that "change" is not a set of mere lifestyle choices but a wrenching transition away from all our familiar and comfortable habits into a stark and rigorous new economic landscape. The credit economy is dead and the dead credit residue of that dead economy is going where dead things go. It came into the world as "money" and it is going out of this world as a death-dealing disease, and we're not going to get over this disease until we stop generating additional zombie money out of no productive activity whatsoever. The campaign to sustain the unsustainable is, besides war, the greatest pitfall this society can stumble into. It represents a squandering of our remaining scant resources and can only produce the kind of extreme political disappointment that wrecks nations and leads to major conflicts between them. I don't know how much Mr. Obama buys into the current adopt-a-zombie program -- his Treasury designee Timothy Geithner was apparently in on this weekend's Citicorp deal -- but the President would be wise to steer clear of whatever the walking dead in the Bush corner are still up to. All the activities based on getting something-for-nothing are dead or dying now, in particular buying houses and cars on credit and so it should not be a surprise that the two major victims are the housing and car industries. Notice, by the way, that these are the two major ingredients of an economy based on building suburban sprawl. That's over, too. We're done building it and the stuff we've already built is destined to loose both money value and usefulness as the wrenching transition goes forward. All this obviously begs the question: what kind of economy are we going to live in if the old one is toast? Well, it's also pretty obvious that it will have to be based on activities productively aimed at keeping human beings alive in an ecology that has a future. Once you grasp this, you will see that there is no reason to despair and more than enough for all of us to do, so we can recover from the zombie nation disease and get on with the next chapter of American history -- and I sure hope that Mr. Obama will get with the new program. To be specific about this new economy, we're going to have to make things again, and raise things out of the earth, locally, and trade these things for money of some kind that we earn through our own productive activities. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is optional. The only other option is to go through a violent sociopolitical convulsion. We ought to know from prior examples in world history that this is not a desirable experience. So, to avoid that, we really have to put our shoulders to the wheel and get to work on things that matter, and do it at a scale that is consistent with what the world really has to offer right now, especially in terms of available energy. In my view -- and I know this is controversial -- a much larger proportion of the US population will have to be employed in growing the food we eat. There are many ways of arranging this, some more fair than others, and I hope the better angels of our nature steer us in the direction of fairness and justice. The prospects of a devalued dollar imply that we very shortly will not be able to get the all the oil-and-gas based "inputs" that have made petro-agriculture possible the past century. The consequences of this are so unthinkable that we have not been thinking about it. And, of course, the further implications of current land-use allocation, and the property ownership issues entailed, suggests formidable difficulties in re-arranging the farming sector. The sooner we face all this, the better. As the fiesta of "globalism" (Tom Friedman-style) draws to a close -- another consequence of currency problems -- we'll have to figure out how to make things in this country again. We will not be manufacturing things at the scale, or in the manner, we were used to in, say, 1962. We'll have to do it far more modestly, using much more meager amounts of energy than we did in the past. My guess is that we will get the electricity for doing this mostly from water. It may actually be too late -- from a remaining capital resources point-of-view -- to ramp up a new phase of the nuclear power industry (and there are plenty of arguments from the practical and economic to the ethical against it). But we have to hold a public discussion about it, if only to clear the air and get on with other things, namely the new activites of But I would hasten to warn readers (again!) that we'll probably have to do these things more modestly too (don't count on giant wind "farms"), and that we are liable to be disappointed by what they can actually provide for us (don't expect to run WalMart on wind, solar, algae-fuels, etc). In any case, we're not going back to a "consumer" economy. We're heading into a hard work economy in which people derive their pleasures and gratification more traditionally -- mainly through the company of their fellow human beings (which is saying a lot, for those of you who have forgotten what that's about). Our current investments in "education" -- i.e. training people to become marketing executives for chain stores -- will delude Americans for a while about what kind of work is really available. But before long, the younger adults will realize that there are enormous opportunities for them in a new and very different economy. We will still have commerce -- even if it's not the K-Mart blue-light-special variety -- and the coming generation will have to rebuild all the local, multi-layered networks of commercial inter-dependency that were destroyed by the rise of the chain stores. In short, get ready for local business. It will surely be part-and-parcel of our local food-growing and manufacturing activities. I hate to keep harping on this -- but since nobody else is really talking about it, at least in the organs of public discussion, the job is left to me -- we have to get cracking on the revival of the railroad system in this country, if we expect to remain a united country. This is such a no-brainer that the absence of any talk about it is a prime symptom of the zombie disease that has eaten away our brains. Automobiles (the way we use them) and airplanes are utterly dependent on liquid hydrocarbon fuels, and you can be certain we'll have trouble getting them. You can run trains by other means -- electricity being state-of-the-art in those parts of the world that do it most successfully. I know that California just voted to create a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It's an optimistic sign, but it shows more than a little techno-grandiose over-reach. High speed rail would require a mega-expensive re-do of the tracks. We need to scale our ambitions for this more realistically. California (and every other region of America) would benefit much more from normal-speed trains running every hour on the hour on tracks that already exist than from a mega-expensive, grandiose sci-fi program that might not get built for ten years. The dregs of the Big Three automakers can and should be reorganized to produce the rolling stock for a revived railroad system. Even amidst the financial carnage underway right now, the public is enjoying a respite from high-priced gasoline, but it is due to be short-lived. As I've already said, we are in danger not just of oil prices going way back up again, but of losing access to our supplies from the exporting countries. In other words, we're just as likely to face shortages as high prices, and soon. Oil shortages are certain to produce a political freak-out here unless we get our heads screwed on right -- and this means that Mr. Obama had better prepare quickly for a comprehensive action plan in the face of such an emergency (which has to include a robust public information initiative). In the meantime, Mr. Obama must dissociate himself from all activities aimed at the care-and-feeding of zombies. Mr. Obama is correct that there is one president and one government at a time, and since this is the case in reality, he must avoid being contaminated by the choices they make as their clock ticks out. Obviously, world markets might be more disturbed if Mr. Obama were to step up and actively contradict everything that is being done to cultivate zombies right now. He is in a very delicate position. But being a man of intelligence and sensibility, he may successfully navigate this rough passage. That this melt-down is building straight into the Christmas holidays is one of those accidents of history that leaves one reeling in wonder and nausea. The cable networks better be prepared to bombard the public with round-the-clock showings of It's A Wonderful Life, because they're going to need all the moral support they can get as zombies stalk through the silent night, holy night.

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