I was out on a big Adirondack lake in a canoe this weekend while the American economy was dying — but you wouldn’t have known it for the fleets of giant power boats dragging children back and forth across the water on rubber tubes, and the giant camping vehicles crammed into every bare spot. How do people pay for these things, I wondered. For not a few, installment loans, no doubt — though that still begs the question. The sheer programming of American life runs wide and deep. We are, apparently, a people born to drag children behind hundred-and-fifty horsepower two-stroke engines, so that’s what we do, no matter what is really going on in the world. Alas, mindless programming is the sort of thing that kills societies.
Watching the summer panorama on an Adirondack lake is like reading a history of the post World War Two decades, because almost nothing on view there now existed before 1945 and we’ll be stunned to see how swiftly it all terminates. The fantastic prosperity of these postwar decades killed the wildness of these once-remote lakes. Fortunes were made — like everywhere else in the USA — carving up the landscape and deploying graceless houses made of cheap, fabricated materials. All the diabolical genius brought to engineering the New Jersey and Long Island suburbs was eventually turned loose on the Adirondack wilderness, with predictable results. The lakes themselves, stuffed with all those sleek plastic power boats, are like the Long Island Expressway minus the painted lanes.
The American victory over manifest evil in World War Two was so total that there was no one else left on earth to compete with in making and selling useful articles, at least for a while. And it produced a middle class so well-paid that it could express itself in a vast spewage of plastic and leisure across the land. The human race will look back on this society with wonder and nausea for whatever remains of its time on Earth. For at least twenty years, though, this way of life has been running on fumes, inertia, and promissory notes. The amazing thing is that these life-extension strategies worked, especially the past ten years when there was really nothing left besides a Ponzi structure of interlocked swindles and rackets.
When the time comes when we do look back to understand what went wrong, I think we’ll see that the Woodstock generation went off the rails in 1980, with the election of the actor, Ronald Reagan, who really established the idea that a society could benefit hugely just by lying to itself, or simply pretending. It wasn’t “morning in America,” of course. It was more like eleven-thirty at night, and the rest of the world had eaten our breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and we decided that inflating our national self-esteem was more important than paying attention to reality. That was when we became a something-for-nothing society — and, incidentally, it was also the take-off point for legalized gambling all over America (an “industry” based on the worship of unearned riches). And that was, coincidentally, the moment when we became a nation of dupes, grifters, marks, and suckers.
Now, when I look around that Adirondack lake, I can easily imagine the time — not far off — when the motors cease to ring, and the big, white plastic ridiculous power boats vanish from the scene, and the houses along the shore de-laminate, or are plundered for their materials, and the sites they occupy return to nature, and the aroma of roasting hot dogs no longer wafts on the summer air, and the pastures and orchards run back from the shoreline up the slopes, with people laboring earnestly in them — rather than dragging children on plastic tubes around the water behind a boat that gets four miles to the gallon of gasoline.
For those still capable of paying attention to our national predicament, the questions are: what happens from here… and how does it happen?
Over the last ten days, somebody shot the “Green Shoots” narrative in the head. There is no way the American economy can re-expand. This is a debt deflation like unto nothing the world has ever seen before. We’ve entered the really painful zone of the “work-out” where insolvency can no longer be denied. Things will be heard crashing every day — enterprises, households, assets, institutions, prospects, deals. No amount of stimulus, first, second, or beyond, will avail to stop this process.
President Obama had better turn his efforts from pretending to re-start the revolving credit rackets to overseeing the comprehensive re-simplifying of American life. I think he has a few weeks to turn his rhetoric around before the political mischief begins for real, and the aggrieved classes start shooting things up and burning things down. These classes really do need something to hope for, and something to work at, and something to occupy their attention besides their grief over the massive losses in their lives. But none of that energy will be focused beneficially unless they hear the truth… that there really is no going back to what was before.
It’s also vitally important to commence public hearings and official investigations of those who committed real crimes and malfeasances. Bernie Madoff has been salted away for two and a half lifetimes, but Henry Paulson is still at large after overseeing the creation of the biggest heap of fraudulent securities the world has ever known — and then betting against them in the swaps market, in effect shorting his own swindle — not to mention his misdeeds at the US Department of the Treasury. Why are those other Wall Street smoothies still enjoying their Hamptons villas while the foreclosed set up tents in the Sacramento Delta? Why are the government officials who failed so miserably at regulation still enjoying their salaries, perqs, and pensions while those not employed by a bloated government struggle to stay alive another week. And how many more weeks will go by before Michael Jackson is buried in the ground?