Friday, January 1, 2010

Good Riddance: The Wild 2000s in Review

Well, we can kiss off the first decade of the Third Millenium. Never have so many people been so damned glad to wrap up a decade, and at no time in the history of written civilization have so many people spent so much money and racked up so much debt with so little to show for it, and never have we had a period in which just about every asset lost so much values.

The decade saw a major terrorist attack on an American city that killed over 3,000 people. We entered two losing wars that will probably not end in our lifetimes and that are less likely every day to achieve their objectives. We elected two spectacularly inept presidents in turn who have each colluded with the country's financial kingpins to strip the population of not only the wealth it possessed but that of the next three generations going forward, by offloading the trillions of dollars of unrepayable private debt generated by the most egregious financial fraud ever perpetrated onto the backs of the public.  Our incomes declined while our cost of living rose nearly 35%, and we managed to promulgate the biggest financial fraud ever perpetrated on Planet Earth, whose creation involved racking up the largest load of private and public debt relative to a nation's GDP in the history of civilization. The disparity in incomes has never been wider, and we have at last managed to sell ourselves lock, stock, and barrel to a country run by a thug government dominated by an ideology we are officially opposed to.

It's hard to say what comes next, and while I've made some accurate calls here and there, I wouldn't presume to forecast the coming decade. I can only say that we're not exactly off to a promising start. One octegenarian commentator, at the High Plains Reader, reflected on the comparisons between his first decade of life during the Depression of the 30s, and his 8th decade, and mordantly remarks that we're headed for worse times now and that "I doubt even the grapes will grow in 2010."  It is not encouraging that our leadership continues to toss trillions of dollars at the housing industry to make housing more expensive for people whose incomes are dropping, and billions at the obsolete American auto industry, thus siphoning off the capital that is badly needed to rebuild our frayed electrical grid, let alone the power plants and railroads we will need, or to develop promising new technologies that could mitigate our slide down the slope of fossil fuel depletion and perhaps improve our lives while offering careers with a future, and the potential for economic growth from something other than swapping fraudulent financial products and selling overpriced houses. Or building redundant highways and purveying goods made by semi-slave labor in communist countries.

Our hope lies in the willingness of our middle classes to accept that new externalities have drastically changed the game forever, and their creativity and adaptability in crafting appropriate and rational responses to new and vastly more difficult conditions. Traditionally, the middle classes have been our most dynamic and adaptable populations, and are generally the first to embrace necessary changes and are usually in the vanguard of innovation. The middle, and often, the better-off working classes have given us our entrepreneurs, inventors, scholars, philosophers, and artists, but our middle classes have been financially weakened and greatly demoralized by the losses they have taken in the past 10 years, not to mention the past 30.

On the plus side, our population has become, at least for the time being, more frugal and cautious, and the population in general seems to accept that the high-flying lifestyles of the past couple of decades are out of reach, probably forever, and that they never were underpinned by reality. We are at least still able to eat regularly and the grocery stores are amply supplied. The power flows through the lines and goods are in the stores and the city is repairing the streets, and the trains and buses are running.

Let's just hope that we've seen the worst that thirty years of dying productivity, increasing financial fraud, and reckless spending and debt creation can do, at least for the time being. Most of us have an ugly inkling in the gut that the future has worse things in store for us, and we can only hope we can meet them with courage and the willingness to let go of what no longer serves us, and with the same spirit that inspired the achievements of the past century that have given us so much.


Nudge said...

(part 1 of 2 .. comment length filters are in place)

Lovely post, Laura. All around us are the bitter fruits of what can only be called “mal-purposed government intervention”. I for one cannot lay the blame at the feet of capitalism. It's not capitalism that bails out GMAC so that it can continue making & trading toxic securities; it's not capitalism that holds RE prices unaffordably high while bailing out the same high-flying weasels who knowingly authored dogsh** assets merely to pass off to someone else; it's not capitalism that tries to starve Amtrak and other passenger rail ventures to death while continuing to fund airports, highways, new radar systems, etc; it's not capitalism that rips down thriving old multi-purposed city areas and replaces them with sterile urban-planning monotony that almost overnight becomes a crime magnet; and so on.

The level of government intervention here is the sort of stuff that, if it were to take place in some other nation, we would loudly point it out as practically Soviet in its hubris-laden, top-down, eff-you-all approach of doing things.

We seem to be approaching an interesting potential branching point. Perhaps I'm just imagining this, but it seems that our nation's Powers-That-Be (not the elected officials, but the ones who call their tune here) may soon face a choice between which of the several flavors of Business-As-Usual to continue propping up, and which to let fall.

One of these BAU items is the continued flows of food, energy, consumer goods, regular communication services, the maintenance of roads, and so on.

Another of these BAU items is the continuance of the mega-bonuses, the extremely high incomes, the perquisites, the special privileges of the very richest people who contributed to the campaign finances of the last two presidents .. even when the underlying economic activity is not there to realistically fund these wealth transfers. Thus do the bigwigs at many firms continue to benefit from government largess at the expense of the many taxpayers. As noted above, this is neither capitalism nor democracy. (which begs the question: what's it doing here?)

Another of these BAU items is the vast proliferation of US military bases worldwide plus the two [illegal, unprovoked] wars in the Middle East. Collectively, these things function as both a vast sop to the same military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about and a means of propping up certain segments of the economy. The government “investments” of WW2 in wartime production were much the same kind of “economic stimulus” as what we've got going on here now. For them not familiar with this fact, please consider that the US spends more on its military than the entire rest of the world combined.

Nudge said...

(part 2 of 2)

Another of these BAU items is the expensive continuation of the so-called American Way of Life, which in the current instance seems to revolve around various expensive schemes to maintain and expand our system of roads and suburbia ~ in effect, making the land a giant habitat primarily meant for cars and not for people apart from cars. (hint: cars don't vote, but they certainly need lots of expensive fuel, which certain campaign contributors just happen to be in the business of selling) To this end, our government not only pours vast sums into road transportation (as it does into commercial aviation, but not passenger rail, please note) put puts equally ludicrous sums in the hands of the most inept of our domestic automobile manufacturers, ostensibly so they can keep the lights on for another three months and keep the high salaries flowing to their chief officers, even as the rest of the workforce is laid off or bought out. In the coming years, this vast mal-investment in our cars-and-roads way of life will be shown to be the folly that it is, but by then it will be too late to get the money back out of all that crumbling asphalt, or all those parked and rusting vehicles, or those high-flying executives whose Learjet contrails out of the country have long since been blown away.

It will be interesting to see which of these many expensive BAU items is the first to go. Presumably the illegal wars and the high salaries of campaign contributors will be the last to go; our government has already shown it doesn't care that it's impoverishing its putative constituency, exporting its livelihood, and raising its costs while diminishing its wages.

Apologies for the length of this comment. Let's all hope for a better 2010.

consultant said...

Hi Laura,

Our govt. has been bought by large corporations and wealthy people.

Some would argue that's always been the case, and in my opinion they're right.

Wealth and power go hand-in-hand. The only difference between now and say a century or more ago, is that now, corporate and govt. actions reach out and touch every inch of our lives. Oil, more sophisticated technology, management technique resulting in vastly increased wealth has made it so.

We've only had a few periods in our history where govt. has assumed its proper role and provided balance in economic and social relations. Most of those periods were early on when govt. and business were limited in reach, not by design, but by the limits of technology, energy and therefore wealth.

Whenever we (the nation) reached the "right" balance, the ever present forces of wealth worked to tilt the "game" more in their favor. We are deep into one of those periods now.

Govt. didn't get us into this mess, govt. bought by large corporations and wealthy people got us into this mess.