The Jive Economy
What started out as a case of The Emperor's New Clothes now has America looking like the world's biggest nudist colony, with everyone in the long chain of power and authority admiring each other's splendid new (imagined) pimp suits. George W. Bush (remember him?) wasn't kidding when he discounted the function of objective reality in our national life, saying, "we make our own reality." This apparently hasn't changed much with a new chief at the top.
A nice example popped up last week with the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) index for the fourth quarter of 2009. The equation affects to measure the growth in economic activity and this particular release imputed that the US economy had expanded at an annualized rate of 5.7 percent. Wow, impressive! We must be digging a new Panama Canal or something.
It turned out to be based largely on some jive about inventory "investments" -- meaning, I guess, that the Ronco Corporation has laid in 1.7 million Dial-O-Matic food slicers and Showtime Rotisseries in the expectation that American stock market investors will enter 2010 creaming off their mutual fund profits to spend wildly on every infomercial prompt beamed at them over the graveyard shift at Fox News.
Memo to nation: we're not really growing, we're shrinking. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I dunno. Unlike, say, the stockholders of Toll Brothers I'm not so sure that "housing starts" represents my idea of a healthy economy -- since it really means we're destroying every cornfield and cow pasture left outside our cities, which will play havoc with our national life when the reality of our Wile E. Coyote agribusiness fiasco starts to hit home and we discover what cornfields and cow pastures were really all about in the first place.
Likewise, the standard processors of news media go orgasmic when they announce car sales figures of 11 million units annualized, or something like that. Isn't that wonderful: more cars on the San Diego Freeway and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Ever larger parking requirements for the new WalMart. More trips-per-household to buy milk and Fruit Loops. Do you really think that more suburban sprawl makes this a better nation? When our soldiers bleed out in the sands of Central Asia, will their last thoughts be of the curb cut between the Best Buy and the Burger King?
By the way, it is established fact that the GDP figure benefits from increases in medical services, meaning that the more obese, diabetic, two-pack-a-day cigarette smokers this country produces, the better off our economy is assumed to be. Bring on the Little Debbie Snack Cakes! Let's turn up the dial on hospital admissions!
But as I said, our economy is not really expanding, it's contracting -- and pretty swiftly. The question is how will we manage this contraction and what kind of nation do we become as this occurs.
For the moment, we are a nation committed to sustaining the unsustainable, and because this is the case we invite grievous political mischief as it becomes ever more obvious that the populace is being swindled -- and the populace becomes ever more ticked off about it. Thus, you get the Tea Bagger movement, and things like it, where the disenfranchised meld legitimate complaints with fantasies and conspiracy theories, and produce an incoherent agenda based on ideas like "keeping the government out of Medicare!" One can easily see a movement like this ramping up into full-bore corn-pone Naziism -- and for a nice dramatic enactment of such a scenario I recommend my new three-act stage play Big Slide, which we've posted over at the podcast.
The Republican resurgence now underway -- or imagined to be, I'm not really sure -- casts photogenic clods like Massachusetts's new senator Scott Brown as heralds of a new free market Golden Age, in which WalMart will profitably manage every moment of daily life from grocery shopping to banking to medical care to the mortuary (and perhaps even war). Little thought has been allotted to exactly what the role of citizens might be in such a nirvana. I suppose we'd become an endless chain of $8-an-hour "greeter associates" -- which is at least a step above being a national feedlot of polled Herefords. But I wouldn't want to be mistaken as a shill for the Democratic party, either, since the Obama team has opted for creating its own reality as much as its predecessor bunch did. The result will certainly be the election of countless maniacs to congress this fall, especially of the theocratic-despotic brand -- creationists, alien abductees, economics professors from bible colleges, Sunbelt war hawks, Lyndon LaRouche acolytes, Nativists, Palinites, crusaders against the New World Order, anti-Bilderbergers... the whole appalling menu of thought-disorder cases now roiling in the breakdown lane of American history.
They are our future, these yeast people and mudskippers, because the intelligent minority of this nation lacks the one thing that animates intelligence in the service of reality, and that is the courage to tell the truth. I suppose this is what galls so many former Obama boosters: that the "hope" vested in him would be enacted in truth-telling, which would lead to "change" in the choices we make about doing things. What we ended up with seems to be something like a false champion with a good line of talk. Mr. Obama may yet be pushed into a recognition of the reality he did not personally create, and this may occur as the US economy heads much more drastically south in the months ahead. Something similar might have been the case for Mr. Lincoln. He might have coasted along through 1861 trying to sweet-talk Dixie -- but the South Carolinians went apeshit on him from the get-go, and then there was no turning back from the ensuing conflagration.
More probably, we'll be dragged kicking and screaming into an epochal contraction of economy, something the industrial world hasn't really seen before, something more severe even than the Great Depression we never stop chattering about (as though it was like The Hundred Years War). Instead of preparing for it intelligently by doing things like promoting small scale local farming, local networks of commerce, and rebuilt railroads (things, incidentally, which are within the powers of government to promote) we'll squander our dwindling capital and political resources fighting over the table scraps of the twentieth century. Life is tragic, history is merciless, and societies don't always make good collective choices. Visit Big Slide for a taste of what might be coming.
For a complete list of books by James Howard Kunstler and purchase links, click here.