March 16, 2013 | 0 comments
October 31, 2012 | 15 comments
July 30, 2012 | 17 comments
April 17, 2012 | 24 comments
September 23, 2011 | 18 comments
And that’s only the beginning of a new Dark Age.
Are you ready for the Great Recession of 2011–2012? You should be, for it is getting under way even as you read this. Just as the 2009 “greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression” actually began back in 2007, so we are in the early days of the next cycle. Only this recession is going to be a doozy. And the aftershocks will be felt long after President Hillary Clinton leaves the White House in 2024.
The coming crisis should be no surprise, for we all have had plenty of advance warning. If it is a surprise, blame those chat-show economists who have become so politicized that they ignore the truths of their own science in order to acquire celebrity. Nor should we forget those politicians who deliberately suborn national interest for the security of zero-sum pork-barrel politicking. Combine it all with a news media largely made up of self-referential ignoramuses and it is small wonder that most of the world has been diverted as Dorothy was in Oz by the lightning bolts, explosions, and billowing smoke screen being generated by the men behind the curtain. The truth is our wizards dare not admit that the levers they pull are not really connected to the true crisis that confronts America or its place in the global market.
Despite the self-congratulatory assurances from the White House, Congress, and part of Wall Street that we have been saved from a slide into a 1930s depression, our most serious trials still lie ahead of us. We are unlikely to be able to get back to those halcyon days of perpetual prosperity and optimism that Americans (and most of the industrial world) enjoyed for the last 50 years. A tectonic shift is occurring beneath our feet and the world’s economic climate has shifted. We face not just a few abrasive years of getting back to normal, but a generational hard slog of constricted markets, limited resources, and rolling setbacks. And in each episode of crisis, some will prosper, the weak will suffer most, and radical visions propounded by political snake-oil salesmen of all persuasions will make rational discourse nearly impossible to conduct.
This is not to say that the Apocalypse is upon us, as morally satisfying as that might be to some. Nothing so dramatic is going to happen. The future offers no therapeutic collapse of civilization, with roaming bands prowling the rubble for Soylent Green. Folks will try to live just the way they have been but those lives will be more pinched, the opportunities more limited; caution and bitterness will replace the open-handed optimism that made it a wonder to be a 20th-century American, or even a Western European. If the stolid Swiss now quake at the sight of a minaret in Zurich, it is just one of the many new worries for all of us to fret over in the years to come. Civil privileges now considered “rights” will be up for renegotiation.
One has to feel a twinge of sympathy for the people who have chosen careers of service in government—not just in Washington but in all the capitals of the industrial West. Life just is not going to be as uplifting as it once was back when policy innovations were both credible and idealistic. But it must be especially hard for the crowd of wizards in Washington these days. Building consensus is hard when no one will talk to anyone else. Little wonder then that so much of the dramatic rescue being claimed by the White House in reality turns out to be merely putting rouge on the patient’s cheeks and exclaiming how well the poor soul looks.
Underscoring the difficulty in charting a new economic course is the truth that the government’s own statistics have become so distorted by age and the dynamics of change that they really don’t reflect the depth of the crisis that is upon us. So the wizards continue to twiddle the levers of stimulus and regulatory rules changes without realizing that the dials and barometers have long ago broken connection with what is going on. Houston, we have a problem.
CONSIDER JUST A FEW of the economic bellwethers one hears about on the evening news as proof that the crisis has been stabilized and recovery is imminent. Stock prices are up, true. But trading volume is way down and that is because retail investors—citizens making real investment choices— are on the sidelines. The price rises that swell the Dow Jones Industrial and other indices reflect almost pure speculation by Wall Street’s investment houses that are soggy with Washington’s cash injections. Just as Cash for Clunkers inflated Detroit’s hopes last summer, so the share price recovery is more of a sign of a new bubble inflating than it is of real value returning to share market prices.
The same for housing prices, only more so. It was headline news recently that house prices in “some” areas of the country had stopped declining quite as fast, while in some fewer areas there were even tiny increases in prices of houses sold, if not much increase in the volume. Yet there are uncounted hundreds of thousands of vacant houses, condominiums, and commercial office space for which there is no rational prospect of a buyer during 2010 or perhaps ever.
It will get worse. Of the 47.4 million home mortgages in place today, nearly 10.7 million are “underwater,” that is, the money owed on the loan is greater than the value of the house. And that’s not counting the 2.3 million other mortgages that are “near-negative equity.” Most of these latter will face sharply higher upward ratcheting of their interest rates in 2010 and 2011 and that will automatically plunge those debts below the surface.
In Nevada already the amount of mortgages outstanding is estimated at $132.6 billion against property worth $116.7 billion, a loan-to-value ratio of 116 percent. Even another slight decline in prices in areas such as California (loan-to-value ratio of 72 percent), Arizona (91 percent), or Florida (87 percent) will swamp Washington’s promised next round of mortgage subsidy relief. The government’s own rescue agencies, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and FHA, are dead in the water, and the government’s bank deposit insurance agency, the FDIC, says it has no more reserves to offset the coming next round of failing banks.
EVEN WHEN WASHINGTON ADMITS to a worrying 10-plus percent unemployment rate the real numbers are so far from reality as to be laughable. The recent headlined dip in the jobless rate turns out to have been caused by more than 50,000 already jobless people simply giving up and dropping out of the workforce. This has the statistically absurd result that the percentage of people deemed to be unsuccessfully seeking work is judged to have improved. When labor data is closely parsed for the measure known as “U-6,” which includes people forced to work part-time, those “discouraged” from seeking jobs, and those “marginally attached,” the rate trends above 17 percent.
But even that fails to accurately gauge the cold reality of the hopelessness facing folks at either end of the workforce demographic—the very young (where unemployment is trending above 60 percent) and those 55 and older who are forced back into job quests because their nest eggs vanished in the storm. Two-thirds of the job losses across the country have happened to the very blue-collar workers the Democratic Party has claimed for its own. For those Americans who still have hourly-wage jobs, their employment week would be the envy of a Frenchman—33 hours, on average. Sectors such as manufacturing, construction, and even retailing continue to shed workers; the only consistent gains over the last two years have been, no surprise, in government employment.
The policy response of all Western governments is to follow the failed Japanese model of trying to inflate one’s way out of a downdraft, pumping up another bubble. The theory is that if interest rates are forced low enough, and the money supply increased enough, and the government ramps up deficit spending to redistribute more wealth from the supposed rich to the supposed poor, a “multiplier effect” of economic growth will be sparked by consumers buying more, businesses investing more, and more jobs being created with prosperity spreading and growing. But if interest rates are already at zero, and the value of the dollar has been halved by doubling the supply of it, and the debt service burden of government spending is already suffocating the capital markets, how can one expect consumers to buy more (to buy more of what?), or businesses to invest more (for a new machine to do what?), much less to hire old workers back when the jobs they used to have are vanished, not to some Third World haven, but just vanished?
No one in Washington can say with a straight face just what the U.S. gross domestic product is except that we have been pushed back at least a decade and will probably be more than a decade in just getting back to where we were in 2006 (when GDP rose by an anemic 2.7 percent) just before the bubble burst the next year. Meanwhile new bubbles are forming all around us, in the commodity markets, in Hong Kong real estate, in the troubling data coming out of China and other Asian economies, all just waiting to buckle. Can you say Dubai? Greece?
FURTHER CONFUSING ANY ATTEMPT at a rational public analysis of the current crisis are the prevailing lies that the fault for the crisis lies in the failed economic theories propounded by the late Ronald Reagan and, more, that what we need is to return to the sound prescriptions of the even later John Maynard Keynes. Reagan, this slander says, set the financial markets off on an orgy of speculation and risk-taking by taking off the restraints of sound government regulation and by insisting on deficitbusting tax cuts. By returning to the true religion that Keynes revealed to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a dream, government, and only government, can return us to prosperity by even grander deficit spending coupled with a massive expansion of liquidity and the lowest interest rates possible. If that sounds confusing, it should; neither man prescribed any such thing.