The Coming Siege of Austerity

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It’s a
curious symptom of the consensus trance zombifying the American
public and its auditors in the media that something like a “recovery”
is now deemed to be underway. And, as events compel me to repeat
in this space, it begs the question: recovery to what? To Wall Street
booking stupendous profits by laundering “risk” out of
bad loans with new issues of tranche-o-matic securitized paper?
This I doubt, since there isn’t a pension fund left from San
Jose to Bratislava that would touch this stuff with a stick, even
if it could be turned out in collector’s editions of boxed
sets.

Does it mean
that American “consumers” (so-called) are awaited momentarily
in the flat-screen TV sales parlors with their credit cards fanned-out
like poker hands, ready for “action?” Not too likely with
massive non-performance out in cardholder-land, and half the nation’s
electronics inventory wending its way onto Craig’s List. Are
we expecting more asteroid belts of new suburbs carved in the loamy
outlands of Dallas and Minneapolis, complete with new highway strips
of Big Box shopping and Chuck E. Cheeses? Go to banking’s intensive
care unit and inquire (if you can) among the flat-lining production
home-builders and the real estate investment trusts on life support
when they expect to rev up the heavy equipment.

The idea that
we’re about to resume the insane behavior that induced the
current epochal malaise of economy is so absurd it will only be
heard in the faculty dining halls of the Ivy League. And if America
is not picking up where it left off eighteen months ago – the
orgy of spending future claims on wealth unlikely to accrue –
then what is our destiny? Based on what’s out there in the
organs of public thinking, it seems that we don’t want to think
about it.

So many forces
are arrayed against a return to the previous “normal”
that we will be lucky, in another eighteen months, to still find
ourselves speaking English and celebrating Christmas. What’s
“out there” is a panorama of mutually reinforcing critical
problems pertaining to how we live on this continent. Like the obesity,
heart disease, and diabetes that plague the public, these problems
are disorders of lifestyle habits and the only possible “cure”
is a comprehensive revision of lifestyle. With the onset of spring
weather and the cheez doodles and monster truck rallies and NASCAR
tailgate barbeques and the drive-in beer emporiums all beckoning,
can the public shift its attention from these infantile preoccupations
to saving its own ass?

So far, the
most striking piece of the economic fiasco is the absence of any
galvanizing spirit among the millions getting crushed in the tragic
unwind of our relations with money. It will be interesting to see,
for instance, if there is any uproar over the evolving story of
Goldman Sachs’ latest raid on the U.S. Treasury, after booking
billions in taxpayer-funded payouts funneled through AIG, based
on double-hedged credit default swaps. Such magic tricks are understandably
hard to follow, but a dozen-or-so federal attorneys with a middling
background in differential calculus might suss out the trail that
leads from Ben Bernanke’s work station to Lloyd Blankfein’s
cappuccino machine.

Something similar
may be said in regard to revelations last week of White House economic
advisor Larry Summers’ connection with a number of hedge funds
shoveling millions into his deep pockets for showing up once a week
to cheerlead their “innovations” – not to mention
his shadowy visits to the Goldman Sachs gravy train even after he
signed onto the Obama campaign. As long as the stock markets seem
to rally – no matter what else is really going on in America
– nobody will pay much attention to these disgusting irregularities.

Since it is
that time of year, and I am haunting the gardening shop, one can’t
fail to notice the many styles of pitchforks for sale. My guess
is that the current mood of public paralysis will dissolve in a
blur of blood and spittle sometime between Memorial Day and July
Fourth, even with NASCAR in full swing, and the mushrooming ranks
of the unemployed lost in raptures of engine noise and fried cornmeal.
It doesn’t take too many determined, pissed-off people to create
a lot of mischief in a complex society.

On
the agenda in the second quarter of ’09 are ominous rumblings
in the oil and food sectors. Half a year of cratered oil prices
have decimated the oil industry and we’re driving at 100-miles-an-hour
straight off a cliff into a new kind of supply crisis – even
if industrial production and global exports remain moribund. So
many drilling rigs are being decommissioned that the oil industry
itself looks like it’s preparing for its own death, investment
in exploration and discovery has withered with the credit markets,
and the world may never recover from the year long hiccup in oil
industry activity – translation: peak oil is biting back now
with a vengeance. Its peakness will look peakier and the yawning
arc of depletion beyond will look steeper and pose a threat to every
globalized and continental-scale enterprise in the known world.

So many dire
elements are ranging around our food production system (i.e. farming),
from widespread drought and water table depletion to “input”
shortages (especially fertilizers) to sickness in credit availability,
that we’re all one bad harvest away from something that will
make Pieter Bruegel-the-elder’s “Triumph of Death”
look like Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar Party in comparison.

Barack Obama,
charming as he is, had better drop his pretensions about kick-starting
the old consumer economy, fire the Wall Street clowns and parasites
who are running that futile exercise, and start preparing a US Lifeboat
Economy aimed at reducing the scale and scope of our outlays so
we can survive the coming siege of austerity. Meanwhile, I’m
glad that he finally got a dog for the White House, because the
President knows full well where to turn in Washington if you want
some genuine love and affection.

April
18, 2009

James Howard
Kunstler is the author of The
Long Emergency
, The
Geography of Nowhere
, Home
From Nowhere
, and The
City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition
. He is also the
author of 10 novels including his latest book, World
Made By Hand
, a story set in America's post-oil future. His
articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington
Post, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic Monthly.

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