The Lint Age

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When Ben Bernanke gave his speech to the London School of Economics on Tuesday, our reporter was on the scene. Terry Easton put a tough question to America’s central banker: aren’t your interventions just making the situation worse, he wanted to know.

Amid the blah…blah…blah…of Bernanke’s response was this:

“The tendency of financial systems to boom and bust …is a very long-standing problem… but I think it’s very important for us to try to put out the fire…then you think about the fire code.”

In his 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter argued that all societies — like all organisms — are doomed. Tainter studied ancient Rome as well as the Mayan civilization. He noticed that problems always blaze up. Each one — whether climatic, political or economic — rings the firehall bell. And each solution — and readers may substitute the word “bailout” for solution — brings more challenges and takes more resources. Finally, the available resources are worn out.

Tainter observes that when the costs become high enough, people seem to give up. By the end of Roman era, for example, the burdens of empire were so heavy that people sold themselves into slavery to get free of them. So many people did so at one point that the authorities had to come up with another solution; they outlawed the practice. Henceforth, Roman citizens were required by law to remain free!

Another philosopher, Giambattista Vico, writing in the 18th century, put the beginning of the decline of Rome roughly at the time of the Great Fire during Nero’s reign. Nero, partly to pay for his post-fire reforms and reconstruction, began taking the gold and silver out of the coins. All civilizations go through three stages, Vico said — divine, heroic, and human. The divine period is ruled by the gods. The heroic period is adorned with victories and statues. Then, comes the human era. (Here, we permit ourselves to add a footnote to Vico’s oeuvre: the coin of the realm in early periods is the gods’ money — gold. Later, people switch to money of their own invention — the kind of money you make from trees.) This last stage, says Vico, is when popular democracy arises, along with rational thinking and what Vico delightfully calls the “barbarie della reflessione” [the barbarism of reflection]. In earlier eras, people do what their gods and leaders ask of them. In the final era, they ask, “what’s in it for me?”

Even as late as the early ’60s, John F. Kennedy could still appeal to heroic urge without drawing a laugh. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said in his inaugural address, “ask what you can do for your country.”

But 11 years later, Richard Nixon, like Nero before him, began the process of debasing the country’s money. That was a solution too; the United States had spent too much. Nixon could worry about the fire code later. First he opened up with the fire hose; he defaulted on America’s promise to exchange dollars for gold at the statutory rate.

Barack Obama tried a Kennedyesque appeal to civic high-mindedness last week. We need to “insist that the first question each of us asks isn’t ‘what’s good for me’ but ‘what’s good for the country my children will inherit,’” said the president-elect. But now, like Doric columns in a trailer park, the words are ornamental, not structural. They are the homage that one age pays to a better one.

We are in the 21st century now. Barbarous reflections rise up like swamp gas. The whole place stinks of them. Bernanke and Obama offer solutions. But their plans to save the world from a correction are little more than a swindle. They offer to bail out the mistakes of one generation with trillions of dollars’ worth of debt laid onto the next.

“Regarding the current financial meltdown,” writes Rony Teitelbaum, “it is very clear that two main factors underlie the political reactions to the crisis, the first being pressure originating from ties between the financial and the political elect, manifested by taxpayer bailouts of large institutions that continue to deliver bonuses to the executives and donate to political campaigns. For those of us who are not blind, these are clear signs of political corruption which would have made the worst Roman emperor blush. The second factor is political pressure originating from the mass public. The kind of solutions offered so far, and I may add which were received with very warm enthusiasm, were tax rebates and gasoline tax holidays. These are actions aimed at a public who “impatiently expected quick and obvious results,” to quote Cary’s description of Roman society in AD300. (A History of Rome).”

Circa 2009, there is hardly a soul in the entire world who has not been corrupted by the barbarie della reflessione of the late imperial period. Both patricians and plebes are for bailouts. Both business and labor back stimulus programs. The taxpayers and the politicians who rule them are of one mind. Liberal, conservative, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat all speak with a single voice: "Screw the next generation!”

The golden age is over, in other words. In the space of 40 years it passed from gold, to silver, to paper…and is now somewhere between plastic and navel lint.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis and the co-author with Lila Rajiva of Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (Wiley, 2007).

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