Repricing Reality

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  The KUNSTLER Blog

It ought to be a foregone conclusion that Mr. Obama’s replacement starting January 20, 2017 will preside over conditions of disorder in everyday life and economy never seen before. For the supposedly thinking class in America, the end of reality-optional politics will come as the surprise of their lives.

Where has that hypothetical thinking class been, by the way, the past eight years? Don’t look for it in what used to be called “the newspapers.” The New York Times has become so reality-averse that the editors traded in their blue pencils for Federal Reserve cheerleader pompoms after the Lehman incident of 2008. Every information-dispensing organ has followed their lede: The Recovery Continues! It’s a sturdy plank for promoting the impaired asset known as Hillary.

Don’t look for the thinking class in the universities. They’ve surrendered their traditional duties to a new hybrid persecution campaign that is equal parts Mao Zedong, the Witches of Loudon, and the Asylum at Charenton. For instance the President of Princeton, Mr. Eisgruber, was confronted with a list of demands that included 1) erasure of arch-segregationist Woodrow Wilson’s name from everything on campus, and 2) creation of a new all-black (i.e. segregated) student center. He didn’t blink. Note: nobody in the media asked him about this apparent contradiction. That’s how we roll these days.

Don’t look for the thinking class in business. The C-suites are jammed with people still busy buying back stock in their own companies at outlandish prices with borrowed money. Why? To artificially boost share price and thus their salaries and bonuses. Does it do anything for the fitness of enterprise? No, in fact it makes future failure more likely. Why is there no governance of their insane behavior? Because they’ve also bought and paid for boards of directors composed of a rotating cast of praetorian shills, with fresh recruits entering the scene weekly through the fabled “revolving door” between business and government regulators. Continue reading

Notes from the Locked Ward

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  The KUNSTLER Blog

The remaining Americans sound-of-mind must view the primary election spectacle with mounting sensations of wonder, nausea, and panic. It’s one thing for the financial system to crack up, and another thing for social norms to disintegrate, and still another for the political system to become a locked ward of obvious psychopathology. Even the neurosurgeon on duty went narcoleptic the other night when his name was called to take the stage.

Last week’s candidate “debates” (or boasting contests) only underscored the human frailty on display. Marco Rubio was unmasked as an android with a broken flash drive. For a few moments I thought I was seeing an clip from the old movie Alien. In fact, the Republican melodrama more and more echoes the tone and plot of that story: a hapless, bumbling crew lost in space. One of these nights, something unspeakable is going to shoot out of Donald Trump’s mouth and there will be blood all over the podiums.

The Democratic boasting contest was not more reassuring. Bernie blew his biggest chance yet to harpoon the white whale known as Hillary when he cast some glancing aspersions on Mz It’s-My-Turn’s special side-job as errand girl of the Too-Big-To-Fail banks. Together, Bill and Hillary racked up $7.7 million on 39 speaking gigs to that gang, with Hillary clocking $1.8 million of the total for eight blabs. When Bernie alluded to this raft of grift, MzIMT retorted, “If you’ve got something to say, say it directly.”

There was a lot Bernie could have said, but didn’t. Such as: what did you tell them that was worth over $200,000 a pop? Whatever it was, it must have made them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Did it occur to you that this might look bad sometime in the near future? Is there any way that this might not be construed as bribery? And how is some formerly middle-class out-of-work average voter supposed to feel about you getting paid more for 45 minutes of flapping your gums than he or she has earned in the past five years?

Bernie could have found a gentlemanly way to say that directly, but perhaps he experienced a sickening precognitive vision of his jibes being used against the party establishment’s candidate in the fall general election. Of course, if it looked like Hillary was going to get elected, the remaining sound-of-mind in this country might be falling over each other to apply for citizenship in Uruguay. Continue reading

Ground Control to Captain Zhou Xiaochuan

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

Why would anybody suppose that the Peoples Bank of China might want to tell the truth about anything that was within their power to lie about? Especially the soundness of any loan portfolio vested unto the grasp of its tentacles? Of course, most of what China has done in speeding toward the wall of financial crack-up, it learned from watching US bankers slime their way into Too Big To Fail nirvana — most particularly the array of swindles, dodges, and frauds constructed in the half-light of shadow banking to hedge the sudden, catastrophic appearance of reality-based price discovery.

When so many loans end up networked as collateral in some kind of bet against previous bets against other previous bets, you can be sure that cascading contagion will follow. And so that is exactly what’s happening as China’s rocket ride into Modernity falls back to earth. Like most historical fiascos, it seemed like a good idea at the time: take a nation of about a billion people living in the equivalent of the Twelfth Century, introduce the magic of money printing, spend a gazillion of it on CAT and Kubota earth-moving machines, build the biggest cement industry the world has ever seen, purchase whole factory set-ups, and flood the rest of the world with stuff. Then the trouble starts when you try to defeat the business cycles associated with over-production and saturated markets.

Poor China and poor us. Escape velocity has failed. Which raises the question: escape from what, exactly? Answer: the implacable limits of life on earth. The metaphor for all this, of course, is the old journey-into-space idea, which still persists in the salesmanship of Elon Musk, the ragged remnants of NASA, and even the nightmares of Stephen Hawking. Get off this messed-up home planet and light out of the territories, say Mars. Of course, this is a vain and stupid idea, since we already have a planet engineered to perfection for all the life systems associated with the human project. We just can’t respect its limits.

So now, that dynamic duo, Nature and Reality, the actual owners of the planet, have showed up to read the riot act to the renters throwing a wild party. The fourth and perhaps ultimate financial crisis of the last twenty years begins to express itself in terms that only the raptors and vultures can see from on high. George Soros, Kyle Bass, and the other flocking shadow banking scavengers prepare to short the living shit out of the old Middle Kingdom. The immortal words of G.W. Bush ring in their ears: “This sucker is going down,” and they are sure to win big by betting on the obvious. Trouble is, this sucker could go down so much further than they imagined, that whatever fortunes they gain from its descent will be foiled by the destruction of the very economic system needed for them to enjoy their gains.

For instance, when banking systems go down, governments usually follow, and when governments go down, societies often unravel. It doesn’t take a great effort of imagination to see China’s one party politburo leadership machine lose the respect of its governed masses, and then its control of events, followed by a Great Struggle among the regions and factions to restore some kind of order. And when the smoke clears there will a whole lot of nearly worthless concrete and steel, and a vast loss of notional wealth, and China will be lucky to land back in some approximation of the Twelfth Century.

It must be interesting for China to watch the horrifying disintegration of America’s political party structure currently on view, with the mad bull called Trump rampaging across the land and the designated inevitable Mz It’s-My-Turn hijacking her collective for the greater glory of Goldman Sachs. The last time China got the vapors politically — the so-called Cultural Revolution of the 1960s — the country went batshit crazy. Surely some of the ruling party remembers that with requisite terror.

Or maybe this is China and the USA’s Thelma and Louise moment. Pedal to the metal, they drive into the abyss of history holding hands. Remember, audiences loved that!

The Agonies of Sensible People

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

Much as many people-who-ought-to-know-better have been enjoying the disruptive antics of Donald Trump, surely other cohorts and coteries have endured dark nights of the soul as they witness the 2016 election spin into a perfect storm of rebellion, corruption, and idiocy. Imagine the scenes in Michael Bloomberg’s drawing room the past eight months, the agonies of sensible people! And so after the close of business Friday comes news that the former three-time mayor of New York City is laying concrete plans to run for president on a third-party ticket. Extreme times call for extreme moves by non-extremists.

The Trump phenomenon is pretty well-understood: a politically paralyzed nation hostage to malign forces, mired in racketeering, captive to PC witch-hunters, and pitching into bankruptcy, turns to a TV clown with no filter on his angry brain and he acts out all the discontents of our time. Does anybody doubt that the perfidies of the day beg to be opposed? But those shadowy figures in Bloomberg’s drawing room must be saying, “is this the best we can do?” And so an honorable man steps forward. Someone had to.

Couple of gigantic problems. First, what about Bloomberg being Wall Street’s pet politician? To many, I suppose, Bloomberg is exactly that. I’m not so sure. While he made his multi-billion dollar fortune building a computerized information service for Wall Street, with a news service and some other apps pinned on, he was not a bankster. He consorted with them all the livelong day, day in and day out, for decades. Maybe that was bad enough. Maybe it also puts him at a very special advantage, since other public figures can only pretend to understand the esoteric rackets lately engineered in lower Manhattan.

For instance, Bloomberg must know what a CDO is, and how outfits like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs used them to swindle the taxpayers. I’m not convinced that Donald Trump could explain that to an audience if given an hour of airtime. He rarely speaks in two consecutive coherent sentences, for all his entertainment value. The next president will be on duty during the gravest and most powerful financial unwind in history, and it might be a good thing if he understood how it worked. He will probably be blamed for it in any case, but at least he will be a true mariner in a storm, not just a bigmouth passenger on the ship. Anyway, the salient question is whether the voters could ever accept him as something besides a tool of the banks? Continue reading

Worse Than 1860

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

The lost story-line amid the food-fights and boasting contests that the “debates” have turned into is the destruction being wreaked on the two major parties themselves. I don’t see how either the Republicans or Democrats get out of this thing alive. The primary season now upon us is the event horizon that sucks these two purposeless clubs into the bottomless hole of historical bad memories. Both parties have failed so fundamentally to represent or even apprehend the interests of the nation that they are now merely obstacles to any sort of plausible future, two infernal machines blocking the road, shaking themselves to death.

The Republican Party may be closer to outright blowup since the rank and file will never accept Donald Trump as their legitimate candidate, and Trump has nothing but contempt for the rank and file. If Trump manages to win enough primaries and collect a big mass of delegate votes, the July convention in Cleveland will be the site of a mass political suicide. The party brass, including governors, congressmen, senators and their donor cronies will find some device to deprive Trump of his prize, and the Trump groundlings will revolt against that move, and the whole nomination process will be turned over to the courts, and the result will be a broken organization. The Federal Election Commission may then have to appeal to Capital Hill to postpone the general election. The obvious further result will be a constitutional crisis. Political legitimacy is shattered. Enter, some Pentagon general on a white horse.

Parallel events could rock the Democratic side. I expect Hillary to exit the race one way or another before April. She comes off the shelf like a defective product that never should have made it through quality control. Nobody really likes her. Nobody trusts her. Nobody besides Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Huma Abedin believe that it’s her turn to run the country. Factions at the FBI who have had a good look at her old State Department emails want to see her indicted for using the office to gin up global grift for the Clinton Foundation. These FBI personnel may be setting up another constitutional crisis by forcing Attorney General Loretta Lynch either to begin proceedings against Clinton or resign. Rumors about her health (complications from a concussion suffered in a fall ) won’t go away. And finally, of course, Senator Bernie Sanders is embarrassing her badly at the polls. Continue reading

Discovery

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

It looks like 2016 will be the year that humanfolk learn that the stuff they value was not worth as much as they thought it was. It will be a harrowing process because a great many humans are abandoning ownership of things that are rapidly losing value — e.g. stocks on the Shanghai exchange — and stuffing whatever “money” they can recover into the US dollar, the assets and usufructs of which are also going through a very painful reality value adjustment.

Of course this calls into question foremost exactly what money is, and the answer is: basically a narrative construct. In other words, a story explaining why we behave the way we do around certain things. Some parts of the story have a closer relationship with reality than other parts. The part about the US dollar has a rather weak connection.

When various authorities — the BLS, the Federal Reserve, The New York Times — state that the US economy is “strong,” we can translate that to mean giant companies listed on the stock exchanges are able to put up a Potemkin façade of soundness. For instance, Amazon.com. The company continues to seem like a good idea. And it reinforces that idea in the collective imagination by sending a lot of low-priced goods to your door, (all bought on credit cards), which rings your (nearly) instant gratification bell. This has prompted investors to gobble up Amazon stock.

It’s well-established by now that the “brick-and-mortar” retail operations are majorly sucking wind. Meaning, fewer people are driving to the Target store and venues like it to buy stuff. Supposedly, they are buying stuff at Amazon instead. What interests me in that story is the idea that every single object purchased these days has a UPS journey attached to it. Of course, people also drive to the Target store, though I doubt they leave the place with just one thing. Continue reading

Pretend to the Bitter End

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

Forecast 2016

There’s really one supreme element of this story that you must keep in view at all times: a society (i.e. an economy + a polity = a political economy) based on debt that will never be paid back is certain to crack up. Its institutions will stop functioning. Its business activities will seize up. Its leaders will be demoralized. Its denizens will act up and act out. Its wealth will evaporate.

Given where we are in human history — the moment of techno-industrial over-reach — this crackup will not be easy to recover from; not like, say, the rapid recoveries of Japan and Germany after the brutal fiasco of World War Two. Things have gone too far in too many ways. The coming crackup will re-set the terms of civilized life to levels largely pre-techno-industrial. How far backward remains to be seen.

Those terms might be somewhat negotiable if we could accept the reality of this re-set and prepare for it. But, alas, most of the people capable of thought these days prefer wishful techno-narcissistic woolgathering to a reality-based assessment of where things stand — passively awaiting technological rescue remedies (“they” will “come up with something”) that will enable all the current rackets to continue. Thus, electric cars will allow suburban sprawl to function as the preferred everyday environment; molecular medicine will eliminate the role of death in human affairs; as-yet-undiscovered energy modalities will keep all the familiar comforts and conveniences running; and financial legerdemain will marshal the capital to make it all happen.

Oh, by the way, here’s a second element of the story to stay alert to: that most of the activities on-going in the USA today have taken on the qualities of rackets, that is, dishonest schemes for money-grubbing. This is most vividly and nauseatingly on display lately in the fields of medicine and education — two realms of action that formerly embodied in their basic operating systems the most sacred virtues developed in the fairly short history of civilized human endeavor: duty, diligence, etc.

I’ve offered predictions for many a year that this consortium of rackets would enter failure mode, and so far that has seemed to not have happened, at least not to the catastrophic degree, yet. I’ve also maintained that of all the complex systems we depend on for contemporary life, finance is the most abstracted from reality and therefore the one most likely to show the earliest strains of crackup. The outstanding feature of recent times has been the ability of the banking hierarchies to employ accounting fraud to forestall any reckoning over the majestic sums of unpayable debt. The lesson for those who cheerlead the triumph of fraud is that lying works and that it can continue indefinitely — or at least until they are clear of culpability for it, either retired, dead, or safe beyond the statute of limitations for their particular crime. Continue reading

Questions and Answers

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

The really big item in last night’s 60-Minutes newsbreak was that the latest Star Wars movie passed the billion dollar profit gate a week after release. That says just about everything you need to know about our floundering society, including the state of the legacy news media.

The cherry on top last week was Elon Musk’s SpaceX company’s feat landing the first spent stage of its Falcon 9 rocket to be (theoretically) recycled and thus hugely lowering the cost of firing things into space. The media spooged all over itself on that one, since behind this feat stands Mr. Musk’s heroic quest to land humans on Mars. This culture has lost a lot in the past 40 years, but among the least recognized is the loss of its critical faculties. We’ve become a nation of six-year-olds.

News flash: we’re not going Mars. Notwithstanding the accolades for Ridley Scott’s neatly-rationalized fantasy, The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s novel), any human journey to the red planet would be a one-way trip. Anyway, all that begs the question: why are we so eager to journey to a dead planet with none of the elements necessary for human life when we can’t seem to manage human life on a planet superbly equipped to support us?

Answer: because we are lost in raptures of techno-narcissism. What do I mean by that? We’re convinced that all the unanticipated consequences of our brief techno-industrial orgy can be solved by… more and better technology! Notice that this narrative is being served up to a society now held hostage to the images on little screens, by skilled people who, more and more, act as though these screens have become the new dwelling place of reality. How psychotic is that? Continue reading

Christmas Present

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

Theory du jour: the new Star Wars movie is sucking in whatever meager disposable lucre remains among the economically-flayed mid-to-lower orders of America. In fact, I propose a new index showing an inverse relationship between Star Wars box office receipts and soundness of the financial commonweal. In other words, Star Wars is all that remains of the US economy outside of the obscure workings of Wall Street — and that heretofore magical realm is not looking too rosy either in this season of the Great Rate Hike after puking up 623 points of the DJIA last Thursday and Friday.

Here I confess: for thirty years I have hated those stupid space movies, as much for their badly-written scripts (all mumbo-jumbo exposition of nonsensical story-lines between explosions) as for the degenerate techno-narcissism they promote in a society literally dying from the diminishing returns and unintended consequences of technology.

It adds up to an ominous Yuletide. Turns out that the vehicle the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee was driving in its game of “chicken” with oncoming reality was a hearse. The occupants are ghosts, but don’t know it. A lot of commentators around the web think that the Fed “pulled the trigger” on interest rates to save its credibility. Uh, wrong. They had already lost their credibility. What remains is for these ghosts to helplessly watch over the awesome workout, which has obviously been underway for quite a while in the crash of commodity prices (and whole national economies — e.g. Brazil, Canada, Australia), the janky regions of the bond markets, the related death of the shale oil industry, and the imploding hedge fund scene.

As it were, all credit these days looks shopworn and threadbare, as if the capital markets had by stealth turned into a swap meet of previously-owned optimism. Who believes in anything these days besides the allure of fraud? Capital is supposedly plentiful these days — look how much has rushed into the dollar from the nervous former go-go nations with their wobbling ziggurats of bad loans and surfeit of production capacity — but what actually constitutes that capital? Answer: the dwindling faith anyone will pay you back next Tuesday for a hamburger today. Continue reading

Fedpocalypse Now?

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

If ever such a thing was, the stage is set this Monday and Tuesday for a rush to the exits in financial markets as the world prepares for the US central bank to take one baby step out of the corner it’s in. Everybody can see Janet Yellen standing naked in that corner — more like a box canyon — and it’s not a pretty sight. Despite her well-broadcasted insistence that the economic skies are blue, storm clouds scud through every realm and quarter. Equities barfed nearly four percent just last week, credit is crumbling (nobody wants to lend), junk bonds are tanking (as defaults loom), currencies all around the world are crashing, hedge funds can’t give investors their money back, “liquidity” is AWOL (no buyers for janky securities), commodities are in freefall, oil is going so deep into the sub-basement of value that the industry may never recover, international trade is evaporating, the president is doing everything possible in Syria to start World War Three, and the monster called globalism is lying in its coffin with a stake pointed over its heart.

Folks who didn’t go to cash a month ago must be hyperventilating today.

But the mundane truth probably is that events have finally caught up with the structural distortions of a financial world running on illusion. To everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and economic winter is finally upon us. All the world ‘round, people borrowed too much to buy stuff and now they’re all borrowed out and stuffed up. Welcome to the successor to the global economy: the yard sale economy, with all the previously-bought stuff going back into circulation on its way to the dump. Continue reading

Shining a Light

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

The just-released movie Spotlight is about a Boston Globe investigative reporting team circa 2001-02 that uncovered and documented a vast network of child sex abuse by priests in the Catholic Church that had been on-going for decades. More to the point, Spotlight revealed the institutional rot at the very top of the Boston Catholic Church hierarchy, led by then-Cardinal Bernard Law — which marinated church personnel in a code of secret atrocious behavior enabled by systematic lying and deception. In effect, the church gave permission to its foot-soldiers, the parish priests, to engage in whatever sexual antics they wished to, with a tacit promise to shield them from the reach of the courts. The civil authorities of Boston, heavily Catholic due to Boston’s demographics, assisted the church by throwing up every legal obstacle they could to deter the victims and their advocates in the search for justice — and to put an end to the predation of children by priests.

That was the story that Spotlight told, and it did that very economically, without grandstanding. But the movie had another message for me, as someone who has been involved in the media going back more than forty years when I was an investigative newspaper reporter myself. The message was that the institutional support for great journalism that allowed the Globe’s Spotlight reporting team to do its job is now gone-baby-gone. All the newspapers in the USA, and even the TV and radio news networks, are running these days on skeleton crews. At least that is true of the old flagship organizations such as the Boston Globe and CNN. They just don’t have the reporters out in the field. The front-page or flatscreen interface that the public sees conceals ghost organizations that barely have the reporting resources and the reach to discover what is actually going on in the world.

The dying newspapers — and they really are on life-support at this point, including the Globe andThe New York Times — can’t pay teams of reporters like the Spotlight crew to work through years-long investigations. But what the movie also ought to remind us is that the hierarchical competence at such an enterprise, the layers of editors who know what they are doing and understand the boundaries and conventions of their own society, is also disastrously AWOL in the new Wowee-Zowie era of instant cell-phone networking, Facebook, and Instagram. In a word, leadership has been made to seem dispensable. Continue reading

The Story Line Dissolves

Submitted by James Howard Kunstler  –  www.kunstler.com

Sometimes societies just go crazy. Japan, 1931, Germany, 1933. China, 1966. Spain 1483, France, 1793, Russia, 1917, Cambodia, 1975, Iran, 1979, Rwanda, 1994, Congo, 1996, to name some. By “crazy” I mean a time when anything goes, especially mass killing. The wheels came off the USA in 1861, and though the organized slaughter developed an overlay of romantic historical mythos — especially after Ken Burns converted it into a TV show — the civilized world to that time had hardly ever seen such an epic orgy of death-dealing.

I doubt that I’m I alone in worrying that America today is losing its collective mind. Our official relations with other countries seem perfectly designed to provoke chaos. The universities have melted into toxic sumps beyond even anti-intellectualism to a realm of hallucination. Demented gunmen mow down total strangers weekly in what looks like a growing competition to end their miserable lives with the highest victim score. The financial engineers have done everything possible to pervert and undermine the operations of markets. The political parties are committing suicide by cluelessness and corruption.

There is no narrative for our behavior toward Russia that makes sense anymore. Our campaign to destabilize Ukraine worked out nicely, didn’t it? And then we acted surprised when Russia reclaimed the traditionally Russian territory of Crimea, with its crucial warm-water naval ports. Who woulda thought? Then we attempted to antagonize them further with economic sanctions. The net effect is that Vladimir Putin ended up looking more rational and sane than any leader in the NATO coalition. Continue reading