Fin de Bubble, 2005

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The
heat came down on London yesterday like a hot iron. It took the wrinkles out,
leaving the whole city as flat and limp as an old pair of pants.

We
walked along the river in Southwark and sat down on one of the benches looking
out towards Charing Cross station on the other bank. The water was low. Everyone
outside shuffled along like a sluggish tide. Lines formed to get into restaurants.
Strollers bumped into each other. Out on the river, a party was taking place on
one of the tourist boats; the sounds of a jazz saxophone floated down the river
like litter.

All
of a sudden, we felt the same odd sensation that we recall from the late ’90s…the
fin de bubble feeling… that too many people were enjoying themselves too much.
We sat down at a sidewalk cafe where you had to serve yourself. The two of us
each had a salad and a glass of white wine. The bill came to 26 pounds —
or nearly $50. Our modest bachelor pad in a nearby building costs over $3,000
per month. Elizabeth is looking for an apartment; she believes it will cost nearly
$15,000 per month to move the whole family to London. Where do people get so much
money?

But
that too is a typical fin de bubble hallucination — that money will always
be there when you need it.

Americans
have delusions of mediocrity. This is a point we’ve made before. We make it here
again, because the things that were extraordinary a year ago are even more extraordinary
now. Things that would have been taken for absurd a generation ago are now taken
for granted.

As
a bubble expands, the celebration that began as a little cocktail reception turns
into a wild party, with guests dancing on tables and throwing up outside. Soon,
it gets out of hand.

At
the end of a bubble, the delusions and distortions swell up to grotesque proportions.
People seem ready to believe anything as long as it fits their own fantasies.
The hallucinations become so extravagant that they blow up.

The
Economist, for example, reports, “A recent survey of buyers in Los Angeles
indicated that they expected their homes to increase in value by a whopping 22%
a year over the next decade. This would put the median price per house over $3
million. At current increases in income, the median family will only have $54,535.”

How
is a family earning $54,535 going to buy a $3 million house? Even if the whole
thing were financed at 5%, it would still mean monthly payments of $12,500, or
nearly three times total monthly earnings. Can it happen? No. It is close enough
to impossible that it can smell what it had for dinner. Only a fool would bet
on it. And yet, it appears that millions of people not only take the wager —
they stake their entire financial futures on it.

On
the front page of today’s Daily Mail is a story about a man who convinced
people that he was a spy, that they were in danger, and that they needed him for
protection from terrorists. He then took money from his victims — stealing
nearly $2 million by one guess. In such circumstances, explained a professor from
the University of Birminghan, “captors can wield immense power over their victims
who will do almost anything to please them.” One of his victims, a young man,
even allowed himself to be beaten regularly so that it would “toughen him up.”

In
another context, the man could be running for President of the United States or
perhaps FBI director. The game is the same — persuading people that they
are in great danger and getting them to hand over their money and their liberty.
But the poor fellow was a lone operator, a freelancer and an amateur in the protection
racket; he botched his business and now faces a long stay in the hoosegow.

The
real pros are still at it, with their own “war on terror” hustle. We remind dear
readers of the big picture: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American
imperators needed a new enemy. The nation faced no substantial military threat;
so the best they could come up with was a shadow enemy, terrorists. Trouble was,
there were barely enough real terrorists to fill a small movie theatre. They needed
more to provide a credible reason to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and
continue to expand the empire. The core business of an empire after all is protection.
But it only works if you have something to protect against.

Thus
developed the war against Iraq — a country with no terrorists and no apparent
connection to them. In fact, since the Gulf War, Iraq — which had once been
a client state of the United States — had been a hotbed of peace. Still,
attacking Iraq seemed like a good idea at the time. Since then, the results have
been predictably bad for Americans, but good for the empire. As reported in today’s
Daily Mail, “Iraq war is spawning a breed of ruthless ‘holy warriors’ says
the CIA.” In other words, the strategy is working: terrorists are multiplying.

“They
are regarded as more deadly than their Afghan counterparts and are said to be
highly trained in assassinations, kidnapping, car bombing and urban warfare,”
continues the Daily Mail’s report. “The CIA’s report, leaded to the New
York Times, came as America’s commander in the Gulf, General John Abizaid,
said the insurgency had grown stronger, not weaker, and more foreign fighters
were entering Iraq.

“Many
are expected to carry out attacks in Western Europe, according to the report,
while others will return to their native countries in the Middle East — particularly
Saudi Arabia, where it is believed they will attempt to destabilize national governments.
The report, which has gone to the White House, concludes that Iraq is serving
as a real-world laboratory for urban combat.”

Iraq
had never seen a suicide bombing before the American occupation. Now, they are
as common as drunks at an English wedding. The whole country has been turned into
a recruitment and training center for terrorists. This is good news for America’s
empire industry; now, it has something to provide protection against.

The
bad news for the empire is that its business model is nutty. The more protection
it provides, the more it loses money. That is to say, its homeland supporters
become poorer. It must be galling for those few who understand what it really
going on: they lose money minting terrorists in Iraq…and then lose money fighting
them.

But
at a certain point, the logic of a bubble — whether in markets or in politics
— is the logic of self-destruction. People do stranger and stranger things,
not because they are trying to avoid their own ruin, but because they are trying
to bring it on.

The
Daily Mail is a wealth of grist for our mill today. Elsewhere in the paper
is the story of Mr. Mark McDonald, 43, of Norfolk. The poor man suffered what
the paper called “Death by credit.” Like your editor, the man was a writer. Like
your editor, he was not particularly well paid. But unlike your editor, he had
a great number of credit cards. His debt rose to about $120,000 — on which,
he made minimum payments as long as he was able. But the burden of it got to be
too great, and the father of two decided he would rather place himself on the
rails in front of the 7:09 to London instead of remaining in the ranks of those
living with enormous, unsustainable debt levels.

“Mr.
McDonald’s death was the fifth known suicide due to debt in the past two years,”
says the Daily Mail.

McDonald’s
wife blasted the credit industry: “They are just interested in making money,”
said the woman. But who isn’t? And five suicides in two years seem like a small
price to pay for the benefits of unlimited consumer credit. Besides, the whole
empire rests on nothing more than the sand of credit. The entire U.S. military
budget — great as it is — is still less than the amount of net lending
to America. Without loans from overseas, the empire itself, as we have known it,
is finished.

The
Daily News report had a certain fin de bubble tone to it. Twice as many
people are calling for credit counseling this year as the year before, the paper
noted. Twenty five thousand picked up the phone last month. For every decisive
writer like McDonald there must be thousands of wishy-washy plumbers and dough
bakers who can’t make up their minds. They muddle through…and hoping that their
debts never catch up with them.

June
25, 2005

Bill
Bonner [send
him mail
] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial
Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century
.

Bill
Bonner Archives

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