Jeremiad in a Silver Comet

We woke up this morning in a comfortable silver comet flying across the South Atlantic. It was not a dream. Elizabeth is still sleeping next to us in this Boeing 777, business class.

What a contrast between what used to be and what is now. What a contrast between the near-miracles humans can sometimes pull off, and the disastrous errors and iniquities that they more often fall into. This airplane is so big it is a wonder they are able to get it off the ground. But not only does it take off, it carries hundreds of people with food, drinks, stewards and electric seats, too. It carries all of them up above the clouds for nearly 14 hours — from one continent to another, across the ocean from the Old World to the New.

“The engineers who were able to do this,” said Maria as we got on, “they must really know what they are doing.”

“Let’s hope so…”

But they do know, because they are able to stand on the shoulders of generations of engineers, scientists, tinkers and entrepreneurs who went before them. They are able to learn from dead men and take something from those wormy cadavers to make our own lives safer and richer.

“I remember when I was young,” commented an English woman at dinner last night, “I made a trip to the Argentine with my grandmother. We took a whole trunk load of books, because we thought there would be nothing to do there. It wasn’t that long ago, 1949. But, we still traveled by ship then. It was glorious…weeks at sea. And then, we arrived. What a good time we had.

“But nowadays, people hop on a plane. They can’t take those big trunks with them. They have to travel light. And then, they come back to London and tell us what a good time they had in New York for the weekend. It’s incredible, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is incredible, dear reader, what the engineers can do.

But we wonder what those engineers do with their money. What do they think of the war in Mesopotamia…of the dollar…of the federal deficit?

As soon as you leave behind the right angles and quadratic equations, the world goes wobbly. Nobody ever seems to learn anything. Dead men take their secrets to the grave and snicker at the living. It seems that each generation needs to blow itself up, not once, but several times, before it learns to leave the hand grenades alone.

Beyond science and engineering what is life? Is it love and hate, humbug and corruption, cycles of growth and decay…cycles of humbuggers humbugged and swindlers swindled?

What is the dollar, after all, but a lie? It is just paper masquerading as gold. Yet, people think they are richer if they have more of them. They think they can make themselves happier by borrowing and spending dollars. They even think they’ll be richer, too.

And so, they mortgage their houses, believing that by some miracle their houses become more and more valuable and they’ll be able to “take out” some of this extra wealth whenever it suits them.

Investors cheat themselves, believing they can make money while they sleep — with no work or sacrifice. They think that it is enough to be “in the market,” forgetting they are in it with every other lump with a social security number.

And, all of them tell themselves that the economy is growing, but how it is growing — by consuming more and more wealth! Consumption rises, debt rises, and the GDP goes up.

But, the GDP number is itself a fraud — based on a phony premise and tarted up with fraudulent statistics. Actually, the economy is not growing at all. It’s shrinking, but the poor numbers have been so abused and tortured — they’ll never admit it!

And the deficits…who could believe that they are healthy? Yet, that is what we are told. The more we owe the Chinese, the better. The more the government borrows, the stronger the economy!

And so, the poor lumps keep schlepping harder and harder to keep up with the vain promise of the consumer society — that the more they earn, the more they borrow, the more they spend…the happier and richer they will be.

So many frauds, piled on so many humbugs, which are resting on so many swindles — when will the whole pile fall down?

u2022 Tensions are heating up with Iran…and are we ever feeling it in the natural resource markets.

Light, sweet crude hit $70 a barrel for the first time in seven-and-a-half months today, before moving back down to $69.85 a barrel, an increase of 53 cents on the NYMEX from Thursday’s close. The increase in price comes from the nervousness over Iran’s decision to continue to enrich uranium, despite protests from the United States, Europe and the United Nations.

“If somehow this got resolved diplomatically,” says ABN Amro broker Lee Fader, “that would definitely take a few dollars off” the price of crude oil.

However, if crude futures rise above $70.85, “it can go anywhere at that point” because, from a technical trading standpoint, there is no resistance above that level, Fader said.

u2022 Will the United States attack Iran? The general consensus seems to be that wouldn’t be the smartest choice — and certainly the most dangerous.

David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post, “Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, [has this to say about the situation in Iran]: ‘I think of war with Iran as the ending of America’s present role in the world,’ he told me this week.

“‘Iraq may have been a preview of that, but it’s still redeemable if we get out fast. In a war with Iran, we’ll get dragged down for 20 or 30 years. The world will condemn us. We will lose our position in the world.'”

Our thoughts exactly…

u2022 Hundreds of thousands in pretax dollars to send children to college, for instance — not to really learn anything — but so that the next generation will be able to continue the same humbug. They have to get a degree in order to have a decent spot in the racket — let’s say an economics degree. If they get a masters degree, they might come to see that what is isn’t and what isn’t is. Then they’ll understand how spending money you don’t have really can make you rich, and how the Fed really can manage the economy so debts never have to be paid.

Perhaps they can study business administration and get a job as a top corporate CEO. First they will need to learn why it makes sense to pay a manager millions of dollars even when the shareholders lose money.

How about a career in law? Sue somebody and get a nice billion-dollar settlement! How do you get in on that racket? Spend $120,000 and three years on law school.

Or, every mother’s dream, the kid goes into medicine. But wait, become a doctor and heal the sick? Don’t be a fool. With all those ambulance chasers out there, you’ll never make any real money. And the long hours? Forget it.

Well, there’s always Wall Street. Yes, that’s where the money is. Did you see the size of those bonuses on Wall Street, last year? They were about $500,000 each. Whew! Guess they must have made investors a lot of money, right? But where? Stocks went down. What about bonds? Nope. Not much money made there either.

So, where are the customers’ yachts? That must be another one of the secrets they teach you in business school: How to make money even when the clients don’t.

And finally, there’s government. If you can’t do anything worthwhile yourself, at least you can earn a good living by meddling in other people’s business, right? Maybe the kid could get into the U.S. State Department. That takes a master’s degree in foreign affairs. Yep, it takes a lot of education to understand how you can improve the security of the United States by spending billions we don’t have in order to kick the butts of Third World basket cases that pose no danger to us.

The list goes on and on. As the empire ages, everyone angles for a sinecure, a nook, a cranny, an advantage. The whole edifice gradually corrodes, and the old virtues of the Old Republic — thrift, modesty, simplicity — are soon thrown over by new vices: extravagance, arrogance, and pretence.

We are enjoying our Jeremiad and could go on, at length, but fortunately for our dear readers, this is only a 14-hour flight.

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.