Back in the golden age of American Flyfishing -- say around 1913 -- when technical innovation in a prissy and recondite sport was joined by a new leisure class emanating from the white glove canyons of Wall Street, some new-minted guru of angling came up with method for whipping up action on a trout stream when no fish would rise to the fly. It was really lame. The idea was to artificially create the illusion of a mayfly hatch -- that moment when the larva of, for instance, Ephemerella subvaria, the Hendrickson mayfly, swims to the surface, molts, and dries its newly unfurled adult wings in the brisk spring air. This is famously the moment that drives trout crazy, and when it occurs en masse, with zillions of mayflies "hatching" off the water, a trout feeding-frenzy can ensue. The idea with the artificial hatch was to pitch a fake Hendrickson fly made of feathers and fur in so many furious, rapid casts that the dumb trout lurking below would get suckered into a feeding frenzy -- and, shortly, into the buttered frying pan, with a nice "tuxedo" of cornmeal and bacon.
In the annals of flyfishing, this gambit has been all but
discredited, except among the mentally sub-normal who sometimes venture
over from the lumpen realm of crank-and-plug fishing in search of
improved social standing. But the tactic naturally transferred into the
precincts of finance, where it reappeared in such disparate practices
as Ponzi schemes and Keynesian "pump-priming." Now it is being employed
at a scale never seen before, on an economy that is the equivalent of a
great dead river poisoned by the toxic effluents of the same society
that inhabits its banks (no pun intended). The dark secret of this
river is that the fish who once ran there are all dead.
Much has been made in recent weeks of "animal spirits" and the "psychology of markets" in the hopes that mere attitudes might overcome the laws of thermodynamics. Math wizardry has now yielded to self-esteem building, an understandable sequence of events, since trafficking in the mutant spawn of Wall Street algorithms has ended up completely demoralizing the United States of America. Sadly, this is a little like subjecting a man who has just watched his house burn down to twelve segments of Oprah shows about the triumphal secrets of weight loss.
The Great Wish across America is to resume the life of comfort-and-convenience that seemed so nirvana-like just a few short years ago, when the very constellations of the heavens might have been renamed after heroic Atlanta realtors and Connecticut hedge fund warriors, and the boomer portfolios groaned with earnings, and millions of graying corporate salary mules dreamed of their approaching retirement to a satori of golf and Viagra, and the interior decorators grew so rich installing granite countertops that they could buy their own houses in the East Hampton, and every microcephalic parking valet in Las Vegas qualified for a bucket full of Ninja mortgages, and Lloyd Blankfein could dream of divorcing his wife to marry his cappuccino machine.
The choices now are stark and the kind of life on offer by the future is rather austere. The job of the current president, and the people who work with him, is to manage an epic contraction -- let's say, to land a very large, loaded defect-ridden airplane that has both run out of fuel and suffered grievous mechanical breakdown... and to bring down that vehicle in an unfamiliar country filled with angry savages. Sadly, the new president and his co-pilots just want to keep the plane up there, circling. The president's viziers are working round-the-clock to come up with some way, some toggle-switch, that might turn off the laws of gravity (which are not unrelated to the laws of thermodynamics). But all they seem to be able to come up with are mumbled prayers that are pale imitations of the algorithms once concocted by the Wall Street engineers who designed the aircraft they're riding in.
Well, that's enough conceits and metaphors for today.
We've digested the so-called "stress tests" for now with nary a burp and in a few weeks General Motors will step into the dark cave of bankruptcy. All the ancillary businesses linked to the US car-makers face contraction and annihilation. A couple of things occur to me which have not even entered the national debate on these matters: 1.) the US will still need to manufacture engines and chassis for military vehicles. Do we intend to send out to Mitsubishi for those things in the years ahead? 2.) the US will need rolling stock (i.e. choo-choo cars and engines) for a revived passenger railroad system. Do we intend to buy all that from the quaint peoples of other lands? (While the US workforce instead focuses on updated releases of Grand Theft Auto.)
At the moment, there is tremendous hoopla and jubilation over the start-up of so many "shovel-ready" highway projects around America -- as if what we need most are additional circumferential freeways to enhance the Happy Motoring lifestyle. How insane are we? Is this the only thing we know how to do?
I remain confident that the months ahead will introduce the American public and our leaders to a range of horrors that will begin to penetrate our addled collective imagination. We're far from done with the crisis of banking and money and the related fiasco in mortgages -- which translates into the very real situation of many people become homeless. It remains to be seen what may happen on the food production scene, but the current severe shortage of capital and the intense droughts shaping up around the world will resolve into a much clearer picture by mid-summer. The price of oil has resumed marching up and has now re-entered a range ($50-plus) that spun the airline industry into bankruptcy last time around. Enough carnage has already occurred on the jobs scene that the next act among many chronically jobless may tilt toward desperation, anger, and violence. The sporting goods shops around the nation are already rationing ammunition.
It's not just the stock markets that have decoupled from reality as we enjoy the fragrant vapors of spring -- it's the entire conscious consensus of everybody holding the levers of power and opinion. To put it as simply as possible, we're still sleepwalking into the future.
My 2008 novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available in paperback at all booksellers.