I’d like to know what Barack Obama thinks he’s doing with the fiasco we call the US economy. He can’t pump it back into the credit-fueled freak show it used to be, of course, but he could steer it in a practical new direction. Even people who have lost a lot, and stand to lose more, can be motivated to behave more self-beneficially. The president doesn’t have very long before his economic problems become really awful political problems.
The current mass delusion that will go down in history as the “green shoots fugue” can’t possibly bring the credit freak show back because the credit — i.e. money borrowed from the American future — was swindled away. Something like $14 trillion worth of nominal dollars is being sucked into a cosmic vortex never to be seen again. It was last seen in the spectral forms of so many collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, so-called structured investment vehicles and other now-obvious frauds. That giant sucking sound we hear means the process is still underway, and the “money” disappearing into yawning oblivion will out-pace any effort orchestrated by the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury to replace it with new “money” (or credit). Therefore there is no chance between heaven and hell that the pre-2008 suburban homesteading and shopping fiesta can ever come back. The American polity is tapped out in all sectors, personal, corporate, and public.
Notice the two words largely absent from whatever public discussion exists around these matters — “swindle” and “fraud.” The reason they’re missing is because if they happened to enter the conversation, something would have to be done about them, namely investigations and prosecutions. The president is the person in the best position to set the terms of this public discussion, and by avoiding these two words he’s blowing the chance to begin the process of correcting the tragic course we’re on.
These swindles and frauds range from malfeasance at the highest levels to indecency in the lowliest cubicles — i.e. the collusion of a revolving cast of cabinet-level officials with Wall Street executives to loot the US Treasury, the probable criminal dereliction at the mid-level of agencies like the Federal Reserve’s oversight office and the SEC, to certain and outright street grifting in the traffic of securities known to be worthless at their creation. The current fiction that the public seems to be swallowing (for the moment) is along the lines of the old “mistakes were made” locution, which is an easy way to avoid holding individuals responsible for misdeeds.
The competence and hence the legitimacy of the US government is on the line here. The US economic situation is going to get a lot worse. Many more people are going to lose incomes and chattels and will suffer, and the moment will arrive when they will direct their anger outward. They need to be told two things: that the borrowed-against future is now here, requiring very different behavior; and that those who received lavish payment for looting the American future unlawfully will be subject to due process of law. So far, nobody has even been fired, let alone officially investigated.
Meanwhile, the nation is lumbering toward an epochal moment of truth when the non-viability of how we get by day-to-day is exposed for all to see, including those other nations who have been lending us colossal sums of their hard-earned money to keep our operations afloat. This will be the moment when the US renounces its debt — or just proves unable to continue pretending to service it. This moment is liable to come sometime after the middle of this summer. It will be the moment when all the green shoots babytalk stops and the scope of onrushing hardship becomes self-evident. It will be the moment when all of America finds itself in something like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the federal government proves comically impotent and the cold reality hits that we’re now all on our own.
If it comes to that, I will be sorry to see Barack Obama in the goat-leader role formally occupied by George W. Bush. I voted for Mr. Obama mainly because I thought he had the capacity to tell the public the truth and inspire them to move forward out of childish indulgence into a more rigorous and challenging way of life consistent with the mandates of reality. I’m still not convinced that he’ll fail at this, but time is growing awfully short.
The dreadful moment may arrive with the functional bankruptcy of California, which is on-schedule, as it happens, for July. Governor Schwarzenegger, who really seems to have tried introducing fiscal reality out there, and just plain failed, will surely come to the White House begging for a bail-out. It would be hard for President Obama to turn him down, but then forty-nine other governors will line up behind Arnold and everybody in the world will see what a farce our governance has turned into: a snake eating its own tail.
My 2008 novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available in paperback at all booksellers. I am at work on the sequel.